LAWRENCE — A new approach to recognizing and helping individuals experiencing mental health distress is steadily gaining in use and popularity worldwide. A University of Kansas researcher is leading efforts to determine the effectiveness of the program, known as Mental Health First Aid.
Mental Health First Aid is a public education program that teaches individuals how to recognize and assist a person in mental health distress and help them access more formal supports, much like medical first aid courses do for physical health problems. It is offered in a variety of settings where individuals have contact with a large representation of the community, including workplace settings, schools, colleges and churches. First developed in Australia in 2000, the program has been adapted for use in 20 countries. It came to the United States in 2008 and is now being taught in nearly every state.
Amy Mendenhall, assistant professor of social welfare, has spent the past year gauging the impact of Mental Health First Aid by surveying and interviewing mental health providers across Kansas, and hopes to expand her research to the national level in the near future. Research in Australia has found the program increases individuals’ mental health knowledge, decreases mental health stigma and empowers individuals to help others in need, but little research has been done on the program in the United States.
“We can’t just assume the outcomes will be the same in the United States as they’ve been in Australia or other parts of the world,” Mendenhall said. “The national authorities that oversee it here in the U.S. are very eager to have more research. We all want to find out what the impact is and show the results this educational program is having here in the U.S.”
Mendenhall started by interviewing Kansas mental health providers who teach the course to gain an understanding of how they teach and to whom they offer it. She is now surveying people who took the course from these mental health providers to find out if it improved their mental health knowledge or changed their attitudes toward individuals with mental illness. Mendenhall is also interested in learning if participants have used the knowledge and skills taught in the course to help anyone, either personally or professionally. Starting this summer, Mendenhall plans to expand the Kansas evaluation by studying the recently released youth version of Mental Health First Aid.
Preliminary findings indicate that Mental Health First Aid has a positive impact on public mental health in Kansas. Thus far, people taking part in the research have indicated that the course provides a solid base of knowledge for people with a limited mental health background who are taking it for the first time, and can even act as a useful refresher for individuals with previous mental health education or experience. Others taking the course claim the knowledge and confidence they gained have empowered them to speak up and make a difference by helping themselves or others.
Mendenhall hopes to collaborate with Alicia Lucksted of the University of Maryland-Baltimore Medical School to expand the research to a national level, using her findings from Kansas as a basis. Through the use of more rigorous methods, the national research will expand the Mental Health First Aid body of knowledge by determining its effectiveness and, ideally, helping to improve the program.
“I feel, as a researcher, I have that obligation to show the Mental Health First Aid best practices and results that I’ve found here in Kansas to put a spotlight on them so people nationally can see what’s happening in Kansas,” Mendenhall said. “Hopefully we can use what we have found in Kansas to improve the knowledge of Mental Health First Aid throughout the country as well.”
Mendenhall became interested in evaluating the approach because one of her areas of research is mental health literacy, which refers to how much people know and understand about mental health disorders.
“It’s a very important concept because the level of mental health literacy a person has may impact whether they access needed mental health treatment and the quality of treatment they seek,” Mendenhall said. “By increasing the number of people who know about mental health, we may be able to decrease mental health stigma and decrease the discrepancy between the number of people who struggle with mental health disorders and those who actually get help. Mental Health First Aid is one example of a way to improve mental health literacy in our communities.”