First sergeants get certified in youth mental health first aid

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

As part of Comprehensive Airman Fitness, Tinker first sergeants participated in a Mental Health First Aid course geared primarily toward young adults recognizing possible signs and symptoms of a mental disorder and/or crises. The course was held at Tinker’s Airman and Family Readiness Center in half-day sessions Aug. 1 and 2.

After observing a gap across the installation for education on how individuals can support those suffering with mental disorders, Violence Prevention Integrator Alvin Chandler and Community Support Coordinator Karen Blackwell, both with the 72nd Air Base Wing, addressed the need to bring awareness and training to Tinker. With numerous helping agencies, the goal is to expand resources and abilities to offer more options for support.

The sergeants engaged in various activities pertaining to both youth and adult mental health first aid, though much of the goal was to be equipped to train all aspects of the population, including military and civilian.

“We focus on the development of youth mental health first aid,” Blackwell said. “We only talk about signs and symptoms – not diagnoses – as well as risk factors and protective factors.” Blackwell also led interactive exercises, both group and individual, which gave the sergeants a better understanding of the methods learned and how to best apply them.

At the beginning of the course, the sergeants tested their knowledge by taking an opinionated quiz. The intent was to serve as a rough evaluation of the participants’ knowledge on the topic. Sergeants then broke out into focus sessions covering specific areas of mental illness to further their knowledge of symptoms.

Topics included schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. Parts of the exercises included specific symptoms and target ages of when those symptoms truly develop.

“Mental health first aid is relatable to CPR,” Blackwell said. “This kind of aid helps that young person in a mode where they often don’t understand themselves. It’s important that we support the person experiencing symptoms – sometimes an out-of-body experience – even more so if they are unaware that they’re experiencing as such.”

Additionally, certifying first sergeants in youth mental health first aid is significant in that it seeks to decrease the stigma associated with getting help. Learning how to manage stress, tasks and life events at a younger age can sometimes prepare and prevent more mental health issues from arising in the future, Blackwell said.

“Disorders can develop during those adolescent or young adult years. Sometimes they stay at a signs and symptoms level, but sometimes it’s diagnosable when an individual is young,” she said.

As leaders and first sergeants, the training and certification of youth mental health first aid does not take the place of Air Force regulations, the coordinator emphasized.

“This is important, and serves as more of an ‘in addition to…’ We have to ensure that we adhere to (regulations) and respect privacy.”

Mental Health First Aid is a public education program that introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental illnesses, builds understanding of their impact and overviews common supports. The first sergeants were taught how to assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies. Role-playing and simulations were also utilized to demonstrate how to offer initial support in a mental health crisis, often connecting persons to the appropriate resource.

Although a class for youth mental health first aid is not offered on a regular basis like the adult course, Blackwell said courses can be offered upon request.

Mental Health First Aid certification courses are offered monthly. After an individual is certified for three years, mental health first aiders are able to re-certify via computer-based training. To enroll for training, log onto your myETMS. For more information, visit MentalHealthFirstAid.org or call Alvin Chandler at 582-9848 or Karen Blackwell at 736-3215.