Sen. Bennet backs Mental Health First Aid Act

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With the Sandy Hook school shooting being the last straw for many people around the world, national leaders are taking hard looks at hard topics.

“I think what we’ve seen in the last few months in the country is pretty unprecedented,” said Barb Becker, director of community programs at Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network. “As a country, we’re looking at what we can do to prevent this in the future.”

While it doesn’t always rise to the same passionate level of debate as the topic of gun control, many feel mental illness deserves the same amount of attention. To that end, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has joined a bipartisan effort to bring the Mental Health First Aid Act to the forefront.

“Our country has experienced far too many tragedies in recent years that may have been prevented if there was better access to mental-health services,” Bennet said in a press release. “This bill will provide critical resources to help make sure that training is available to help identify the warning signs of mental illness, effectively respond to a crisis and get help to those who need it. It provides a common-sense solution that can help save lives all across our country.”

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., who was former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ district director. They were both wounded in a mass shooting two years ago at a community forum.

“I urge you to endorse common-sense, bipartisan proposals like the Mental Health First Aid Act,” writes Barber in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden. “We have failed to give the mental-health care needs of Americans due attention for too long — and we paid too high a price for this neglect.”

The act takes its cue from a program founded in Australia in 2001. Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network began teaching it four years ago, and instructor Leslie Geiger said she’s never heard anyone say it was a waste of time.

“This is as bipartisan as cancer or diabetes,” said Geiger. “Just because somebody has a mental-health issue does not mean they’re prone to violence.”

In fact, notes Becker, people with severe disorders are less likely to commit acts of violence than the general population, and more likely to be victims. People with illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder most often end up in the criminal-justice system because of things like trespassing, illegal camping or panhandling.

Becker hopes federal legislation will help raise awareness about such issues and create more opportunity for people to get the help they need.

George DelGrosso, CEO of the Colorado Behavioral Health Council, testified last month in support of the bill before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. CBHC’s 28 member organizations provide psychiatric care, community-based services and addiction treatment to more than 120,000 Coloradans each year. About 50 percent of its caseload is adults with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

DelGrosso believes training a diverse array of audiences is key to the program’s success. In Colorado, CBHC has trained the State Sheriff’s Association, the Colorado Department of Corrections, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s cabinet members and many other state agencies. It is currently organizing training for all the rabbis in the Denver metro area and hopes to take the program to schools and colleges throughout the state.

“The ultimate goal is to increase the understanding of mental-health issues, help our citizens be able to identify when a friend, co-worker or family member is having mental-health distress, and help them get involved in treatment when it is necessary,” said DelGrosso. “Someday we hope to see Mental Health First Aid Instruction as commonplace as physical-health first aid.”

Those interested in taking the class can register at www.admhn.org/Education. The next session is March 14-15. The cost is $25. The site also offers free mental-health screenings, though Geiger cautions it’s not a replacement for live help.

“If emotional factors are keeping someone from their ability to maintain positive relationships or perform their vocation, then they would probably be best served by seeking a mental-health assessment,” she said.

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