Working to reduce mental illness stigma

First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin hosts ‘first aid’ training


As if they were sitting in a college classroom, a group of people in the hall of the First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin took part in a Mental Health First Aid training session on Feb. 8, at which they learned how to help someone struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

The eight-hour interactive workshop, administered by Nassau County health care professionals, taught participants how to respond to a person in crisis, whether in a psychotic episode or an opioid overdose.

“As a society, we want to create integration, we want to create safe spaces, we want to have that conversation and be comfortable helping each other and supporting each other,” said Yvonne Lyon, director of education and training for the Mental Health Association of Nassau County. She led the session with Brent Russell, the director of peer services.

The program is funded by the Nassau County Department of Human Services and the county Office of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities Services. Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. lives with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and on average there are 123 suicides a day. From 1999 to 2016, about 630,000 people died of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is deepened when people fear talking about it, Lyon said, and when they separate themselves from those who experience it. But the program encourages open, judgment-free communication.

“We talk about, in detail, the three most common disorders: anxiety disorder, depression and substance use disorder,” she explained. “Those are the three most common ones, and then we teach participants an action tool. They learn practical steps on how to get support for someone who’s struggling.”


New set of skills

The program is designed to give participants, many of whom were church congregants and Baldwin residents, the skills needed to reach out and provide initial support to someone who may have a mental health or substance use problem, organizers said. Attendees learned how to identify, understand and respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use, how to interact with a person in crisis, how to connect people with help and how to administer naloxone in the case of an opioid overdose.

The course teaches the “ALGEE” action plan: Assess for risk of suicide or harm, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

“So often we find that substances, especially alcohol, [are] used to self-medicate,” Lyon said, “so that they can kind of try to numb or work through something by shutting down, so that’s why alcohol and other drugs could come into play.”

Mental Health First Aid is a national program operated by the National Council for Behavioral Health. More than a million people have taken the training course.

The Rev. Adam Fischer, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin, at 717 St. Luke’s Place, said he participated in the course for many reasons, personal and professional.

“My younger brother took his life through suicide three years ago, and I don’t know that an intervention would’ve helped him in the situation where he was, but this was something that . . . is a great need,” Fischer said. “Where we are in Long Island, there’s just a lot of situations where people have different crises that are happening all the time, whether that’s a mental health crisis or a substance abuse crisis, and to practice gaining skills that de-escalate situations allows us to connect with people to show compassion and humanity instead of judgment.”

Noting that community members joined congregants to take part in the program, Fischer said he hoped new relationships would form and that the session would help to “enhance our ability to just be a better community, and from my perspective, to share God’s love and light with the world.”

“The more we can do to increase those connections, the stronger we will be together,” he said. “I feel like part of our ministry as a church is to really be opening our doors and reaching out into the community and saying we love you, we care about you, we want to find ways to relieve some of the pressure that everybody else seems to be rapidly escalating and building.”

He said the trainers provided informational worksheets, showed videos and offered resources to participants, including a manual similar to the Red Cross First Aid manual. He and other attendees witnessed an example of an auditory hallucination episode, which he described as “unsettling,” but helpful.


A shared identity

“It’s not about our different identities in all of this,” Fischer said, “but it’s about our shared identity of being humans together, on this planet, on Long Island, in this community of Baldwin, to reach out and help one another.”

Another Baldwin resident, Angela Seneux-Weekes, attended the program. She founded a charity with her husband about 10 years ago, TOCO, or They Often Cry Outreach, that aids underprivileged and at-risk children in the Caribbean.

“This would be perfect because we’re having so many suicides now,” she said. “I think we will have to definitely start addressing these problems.”

Being able to understand and adapt to mental health crises, Seneux-Weekes said, would be the first step toward potentially setting up a program to help children in Saint Lucia. But first, she is starting with what is closest to home. She has three young boys, one of whom is in high school.

“I’m trying to be in tune with what’s going on with them, and so this is something to help give me more information to address any issues I might see,” she said. “You just never know the signs — I don’t know all the signs, so I come in here, and I learn something and how to deal with it. I certainly didn’t have any of the tools. At least now I know something.”

Seneux-Weekes said she learned how to respond to someone having a psychotic episode, noting that she would have rubbed the person on the back, which the trainers said not to do, because a person in crisis may lash out violently if touched.

“I had no clue,” she said. “I would’ve been a real bad person at this, but today helped in that way.”

Her youngest son, she added, shared his concerns about shootings and seeing his classmates suffering from depression. Seneux-Weekes encouraged him to open up about anything he might need to talk about, and although she does not promote missing school, said he could take a mental health day if needed.

“I said one thing I can promise you is that if you come to me and ask for a mental health day, I will say OK,” she said. “If you need that day, you’ll get it, no questions asked. Last Monday, he asked me for that day and I said ‘Fine, OK,’ no questions asked. This seminar was really good for me to come to.”