A Nelson community group will offer a course in mental health first aid to the public this summer and fall.
The Nelson Street Culture Collaborative identified the course as a priority this year in its work to better understand and support “those who rely on the street to survive.” It will be the group’s first concrete community initiative, after more than a year of planning and discussions.
Zalika Adamson, who will teach the course, says mental health first aid is similar to physical first aid.
“The typical bystander does not know what to do,” she says, “but there is actually a lot you can do prior to professional help coming along.”
She says that in physical first aid you might decide to call 911, but you need to keep them warm and safe and stay with them in the meantime, and that is significant help in itself. With mental health first aid it’s similar.
But it’s also different from physical first aid, she says, because “we cannot see the injury. We can’t see the bleeding, so to speak.”
Adamson is a social worker and instructor with over 30 years of providing mental health support, education and advocacy. She currently lives in Calgary but is moving to Nelson this year.
She says the course will start by giving an outline of the signs and symptoms of typical mental health problems. The she’ll talk about how to intervene, but she stresses that she’s not teaching people to be therapists or counsellors, but rather how to calm the situation until professional help can take over.
Adamson says the first step is to engage with the person and assess the situation.
“Make the attempt to say, ‘Hello, can I help you, is there something I can do? I would like to help you.’
“If you call for help [an ambulance for example, as in physical first aid] tell them, ‘While help is coming I am going to stay with you.’ You might need to keep telling them that.”
She says the person might be in a state of fear, afraid no one is going to help them, and “just providing assistance and being with them can be a very calming tool and a significant action. It decreases the likelihood that it is going to get worse.”
An important skill taught in the course, says Adamson, is listening non-judgmentally, which includes not telling people to just get over it or to think positively.
Adamson offers a scenario of something that might happen downtown.
“Somebody comes in to your store yelling angrily, talking to themselves. Everyone gives them a wide berth, but I would walk up and say ‘Sir, can you hear me? Are you okay, do you need some help?’
“He may share that the aliens are after him, or he might say he is just talking to Uncle Steve, and I say, ‘You need to know that you are yelling and scaring people.’”
Adamson says sometimes you will find they were not aware they were talking out loud, and they will tell you they are okay and stop doing it.
“But if he starts talking to you about the aliens, we will teach you to respond to the feelings, not to the delusion. ‘That must be very scary for you, how can I help?’ Don’t talk with them about their delusions. If you respond to the feelings you can calm them down.”
Adamson offers the caveat that every situation requires different responses, but she can provide useful baseline training based on the understanding that “a mental illness is a medical conditon. If you realize that, it gives it a whole new meaning.”
She will also talk about people who are severely intoxicated or drugged, and how that differs, in symptoms and response.
Adamson says if you come in contact with a person with mental illness in public, “people watch you, people watch how you handle it, and that can improve your profile as a business person or as a caring person who is not afraid to go out and offer assistance.”
The Street Culture Collaborative consists of 40 people from the following sectors: police, social services, faith, mental health, business, local government, education, health, and public works.
As its second priority project, the collaborative will be putting together a street outreach team, to be described in a future story in the Star.