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UMC seminars teach first aid for mental health

By Jessica Brodie

Seeking a way to address a gap in mental health care and mitigate a steady decline in mental and emotional health, Wespath offered a two-part live, virtual seminar on first aid for mental health this spring well attended by clergy and laity across the United Methodist connection.

Wespath, the health benefits and pension agency serving the UMC, offered the seminar free in March and has now made it available for the public to view the session videos, slides and other information at www.wespath.org/r/firstaidmh.

Chris White, an international hostage and crisis negotiator for the government of the United Kingdom, led the trainings with participation from Kelly Wittich, Wespath director of health and well-being.

The first session covered the basics of mental health, how to identify when you or someone else may have mental health needs that require assistance, and the skills to start a conversation and get them the help they need.

The second session took a deeper dive into external influences, stress, vulnerability and ways in which thoughts, feelings and behaviors are impacted every day, offering practical methods for how to manage ourselves and others in crisis.

The Rev. Darlene L. Kelley, pastor of Mount Pleasant and O’Neal Street UMCs in the Greenwood District, was one of those from South Carolina who participated in the free seminars.

“Learning about mental health and how to better care for myself and others helps me be a better pastor,” Kelley said. “Humans are mind, body and spirit, so understanding more about mental health helps us better care for the people in our churches.  The more I know about how the human mind works and how we are all subject to the ups and downs of our humanity, the better equipped I am to take care of myself and to handle the needs and challenges of the people I serve.”

The Rev. Weston Pendergrass, pastor of Grace UMC, Greer, echoed her thoughts.

“Taking the mental health first aid training has helped me feel much more confident I’ll be able to respond to my community in a crisis, as well as helping anyone better connect with appropriate mental health resources in our community,” Pendergrass said. “I encourage anyone—from the pew sitters to the church leaders, from the small group leaders to the youth group leaders—to all consider taking a mental health first aid training.”

Session One: Stigma, ALGEE and more

Session One included topics on current mental health challenges and statistics; influences, stress, vulnerability and self-awareness; stigma, discrimination and promoting inclusion; identifying and coping with stress; exploring our own “stress signatures”; and first aid principles to approaching and helping others.

White opened by noting just because someone doesn’t have a mental illness diagnosis doesn’t mean they enjoy good mental health, and a continued slip in wellbeing can lead to more serious mental health issues.

What shocked him was realizing that in his country, the biggest killer of men younger than 45 in the UK is suicide, yet many don’t like to talk about the problem of mental illness given the stigma and discrimination that often accompany it.

“There’s no stigma breaking your wrist skiing, but when something goes wrong with the most complex organ in our body (our brain), everyone gets frightened,” White said.

He said first steps include trying to understand we all live in “rooms,” and when it comes to helping others through mental health, we need to understand someone else’s room and try to look through their window on the world.

“We must get in relationship and develop trust to understand this,” White said.

He said sitting down and telling someone “I suffer from a poor mental state” takes courage and bravery, and first we should celebrate that and affirm their self-esteem. Then it comes down to establishing rapport and trust with them, listening without judgment, advice or problem-solving

“Understand them,” he said. “Your goal is to bring about a small behavioral change to help them.

White shared the acronym ALGEE for people to use when talking with people about mental health:

  • A: Assess for suicide risk

  • L: Listen without judgment

  • G: Give reassurance and information

  • E: Encourage professional help

  • E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies

“And if you hear language like ‘I wish I wasn’t here, I feel you’d be better without me, I feel you’re wasting your time,’ please, please challenge that,” White said. “Say things like, ‘No, it’s not true, you are needed, are you considering hurting yourself, etc.’ Tell them there is help, it’s OK, it’s no different than going to doctor for a broken wrist.”

As he noted, suicidal people do usually put out signals and hints ahead of time, and you can save a life.

Session Two: Laddering up and ‘MOREPIES’

Session Two covered personal resilience and staying well; understanding ways in which we can become unwell; an introduction to depression, substance abuse, anxiety and self-harm; risk factors and First Aid for Mental Health interventions; suicide and suicidal crisis; connecting with others; active listening; and understanding common personal barriers to having an effective conversation.

White shared that first aid for mental health isn’t about turning people into mental health professionals. It’s simply first aid. And one of the biggest things that helps with first aid for mental health is active listening.

Leaning to develop active listening skills is so useful when dealing with someone in very deep crisis, including suicide intervention.

“Suicide is a staggeringly huge number,” White said.

Improvement of mental health both for oneself and others starts with each of us understanding our own mental fitness and identifying when others are in need.

He offered a “ladder-up” risk assessment for suicide, encouraging people to challenge language that may signal intent, such as, “Everyone would be better off. I’m a waste of space. I just want to disappear.”

White noted that challenging doesn’t mean saying “No, don’t do it,” but rather asking them more, asking them to elaborate. It’s about spotting signs.

The first step is to address thoughts: “Sometimes when people experience X they have dark thoughts. I want to check in—are you thinking about killing yourself?”

The second step is asking whether they have a plan, such as, “Thank you for honesty. Have you thought about how you’d take your life?”

The third step addresses the means. You might ask, “It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this. Do you have what you’d need to do this?”

The fourth is understanding the time frame: “You are so brave to share this. When do you plan to do this?”

White said a huge myth is that challenging suicidal or risk language might “plant the seed” of suicide in someone’s mind, but it won’t.

“It’s not a comfortable question to ask but an important one. The worst that can happen is they say, ‘Look, don’t be ridiculous, it’s a figure of speech.’ Or you may have actually stopped a process that may move up the stairstep.”

White then shared ways we can actively listen, which involves a willingness to understand their perspective, building rapport, increasing my influence in their life and encouraging positive behavioral change.

“It’s not just being quiet and waiting for my turn to speak,” White said.

He offered several tips using the acronym MOREPIES to improve active listening:

  • M: Minimal encouragers (respond with “Uh huh, OK, right, mmmm”)

  • O: Open questions (not yes or no answers but answers that involve conversation on their part)

  • R: Reflecting/mirroring (echo what they say, the hooks or the word with lots of emotional energy, e.g. “I hated the teacher.” You might repeat, “Hated … ”)

  • E: Emotional labeling (it can be helpful to name it, e.g., ‘You sound X, you look X, you appear X.”)

  • P: Paraphrasing (using your own voice to clarify and present what you’ve listened to in a fresh manner)

  • I: I statements

  • E: Effective pauses

  • S: Summarizing

At the close of the seminar, White offered several key takeaways, encouraging participants to remember that the pandemic and other stress triggers affect millions, but we don’t always see it.

“Suicide intervention starts earlier than you may think, so challenge any language with empathy and compassion, and start today,” White said.

To access the session videos, slides and other information, visit www.wespath.org/r/firstaidmh. The material is fully available and accessible to all.

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