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CPR for the mind: SLCo offers mental health first aid

Oct 27, 2016 03:19PM ● By Travis Barton

Utah has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates, and the state is in the midst of a suicide crisis among young people. The youth suicide rate in Utah has tripled since 2007 and it’s now the leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds. (Courtesy of Optum)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Cottonwood Heights

The Speedy Foundation teamed up with Optum on Sept. 24 to offer a free Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course at the Salt Lake County offices in West Valley City. MHFA is an eight-hour course training participants how to identify the common signs of mental illness including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use. 

What the Classes Do

For four years Robyn Emery has been teaching MHFA, but her involvement with mental health has spanned much longer. Emery’s daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 14 and it’s what led Emery into her work field. 

“[My daughter] got me involved just trying to keep her alive and good and well…now I advocate for families with kids who have mental health issues,” Emery said. 

Emery is a certified MHFA facilitator and a family support specialist at Optum. She said the class is essential in teaching people how to be first responders in a mental health crisis. 

“People are often trained in CPR or the Heimlich maneuver or first aid, but you’re just as likely to come in contact with someone who is suffering from a mental or emotional crisis,” Emery said. 

Julie Stewart and her husband have taken the course twice and work with homeless people experiencing mental health issues. 

“With the skills I learned, I feel confident I can step up to support someone in my community and help them get the care they need,” Stewart, a Sandy resident, said.

Emery said the most important skills participants learn is how to recognize an issue, having the tools to assess the risk and directing the person to a place they can seek professional help. 

“You’re not going to be able to handle it forever, you’re not supposed to be,” Emery said. “We want [class participants] to see what it looks like and what it’s not.”

Katie Flood, director and treasurer of The Speedy Foundation, said recognizing the issue promptly rather than ignoring the signs can help stop issues before they become serious. 

“A lot of times we overlook [the signs] and just assume they’ll be OK and get themselves out of this funk,” Flood said. 

 Stewart said she used to be afraid talking to people suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts. She learned strategies they could use to council with those who feel like “they’ve hit rock bottom.” 

“Instead of saying, ‘well you’ll be OK,’ and walk off, maybe realizing instead that it does help to assess the situation and say, ‘let’s talk about it.’ Those words are big words,” Stewart said. “[Emery’s] class really does help you feel more comfortable in talking through things.”

It’s part of the skill set attendees are meant to acquire along with knowing where to send people for professional help. 

“We could give reassurance that there is help and learning from Robyn about all the resources in the valley was huge for us,” Stewart said.

It could also prove a lifesaver for the homeless Stewart works with. 

One in five adults experience mental illness according to the National Institute on Mental Health. With everyone capable of receiving aid from the course, Flood has experienced firsthand the results of the training. 

“I’ve used it for myself, not knowing I was depressed. Then seeing it really progress, I was able to use those tools and take a step back and really reflect on what I was going through,” Flood said. 

For a year and a half, Flood has worked with The Speedy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preventing suicide and supporting mental health. It was formed in 2011 in memory of Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, an Olympic freestyle aerials silver medalist. Peterson battled depression before taking his life at age 29. 

Flood’s brother was an Olympian with Peterson and felt the need to jump in and help.

“I, too, had suffered from depression. I feel like its therapeutic in a way. I can reach out and show there’s recovery and hope and good health,” Flood said. 

Breaking down stigmas

Classes are comprised of 20 to 30 people and one of the first things it does is dispel stigmas surrounding mental health. Flood said it’s the interactive classes that help shatter perceptions. 

“You see people engaged, really asking the questions they’ve seen people go through. The engagement is wonderful for people to get rid of the stigmas of depression, drug abuse and suicide,” Flood said. 

Emery said the class facilitates understanding of a person with mental illness. 

“The whole basis with a stigma is a lack of knowledge. When you learn about these things, that they’re normal and not a flaw in their character, it makes a difference in how you interact with them,” Emery said. 

Emery explained that oftentimes people with mental illness are perceived as scary and violent when in reality, they’re more likely to be the victim. She said she would love to see everyone in the valley take the course because you never know when a situation will arise. 

“I think of it personally with my daughter, I’m not with her every night. What if something goes wrong and I’m not around, who’s going to take care of her? Neighbors? And if they don’t know what to do, they can’t be a lot of help,” Emery said. “In fact, they probably walk away because they’re frightened by what they don’t understand.”

Emery took the MHFA course. It improved her family relationships, more than just with her daughter. 

Emery’s nephew committed suicide 30 years ago, the night before his 31st birthday. He had three little kids at the time. Emery was angry at him. She would go to the cemetery leaving flowers at the graves of all her family members, except his. She would wonder how he could do such a selfish thing. For 20 years, she continued to wonder until the class changed her perception. 

“Now I know the pain he was feeling was so intense, that it was the only way he knew how to stop it,” Emery said. “It’s helped me to be a lot more compassionate and feel things that I didn’t for 20 years.” 

Youth Mental Health

“Mental health is not restricted to a particular age group,” Stewart said about traumatic experiences affecting all ages. 

Youth mental health classes are also offered for people who regularly interact with adolescents who may be experiencing mental health or addiction challenges. 

These classes have become increasingly important in light of a July report from the Utah Department of Health (UDH) stating that suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah for 10- to 17-year-olds. 

“We’re in a major youth suicide crisis right now…we need to really hit home in our schools and anywhere we can,” Flood said, adding that the class is great for parents, counselors and educators. 

Often times mental health issues can be misjudged as anxiety, stress or being overdramatic, especially in teens Emery said. 

“It took me two years to realize that it wasn’t typical teenage rebellion,” Emery said of the experience with her daughter. 

Flood said the class shows participants the signs between typical and atypical teenage behavior. 

“You can see where a typical teenager will always go on their roller coaster ride to really seeing the signs of isolating and if they’re getting involved with alcohol and drugs,” Flood said. 

Severity and time are two of the most important things to look for according to Emery. 

“That lets you know it’s not a situational issue,” Emery said. 

Utah’s Issues

Challenges of maintaining an emotional balance is an issue affecting the entire state of Utah. 

In a survey conducted by UDH, it showed that one in 15 Utah adults have had serious thoughts of suicide and according to statistics compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah ranks fifth in the nation in suicide rates at 21 people per 100,000 people. 

“We live in what they call suicide alley,” Emery said referring to the region that includes Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota to go along with Utah. The region has the highest average rate of almost 20 suicides per 100,000 people. 

“Suicide is the one cause of death that is 100 percent preventable, if you know what to do,” Emery said. 

Stewart said having awareness of the issue can assist in both the healing and prevention process.  

“We can all help each other, I might not be in a crisis today but I might be next month,” Stewart said. 

With the MHFA classes and a suicide hotline in Idaho, Flood said The Speedy Foundation is reaching its mission in promoting conversation on the topic. In turn, this helps the individuals who need assistance.

“It’s OK to let people know you’ve gone through hard times because chances are that everyone has, just different degrees of it,” Flood said. “People feel shame with it so no one wants to talk about it.” 

Optum and Speedy Foundation Partnership 

The partnership between The Speedy Foundation and Optum started two years ago in Idaho before branching to the Utah division. Optum manages Salt Lake County Mental Health and Substance Use services through a contract with the Division of Behavioral Health Services. 

Flood said MHFA courses fit the need for education and fit the mission of the foundation by combining to provide free books for the courses. Cost of the class is typically $20 to cover the cost of the book provided, but with the partnership, the classes are available for free for limited period of time. 

“We are committed to working with Optum to increase awareness about suicide prevention and assist people throughout the Salt Lake area who are affected by mental illness,” Flood said. 

Provided by the partnership for the eight-hour courses are leadership, logistical support, printed course materials and awareness campaigns. 

Emery said it’s been great working with The Speedy Foundation. 

“They’re incredible, it’s a great foundation…a lot of people have been able to benefit from the classes who otherwise couldn’t,” Emery said. 

It’s more likely to find someone having an emotional crisis than a heart attack. Which, Emery said, makes it all the more important to take the class. 

“It really is [important]. I have a family full of mental health problems and I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t have this kind of stuff,” Emery said. 

For more information on upcoming courses available in the Salt Lake City area from Optum and The Speedy Foundation, contact Julie Hardle at [email protected] or call (801) 982-3217. For immediate assistance with a behavioral health crisis, call the Salt Lake County Crisis Line 24 hours/7 days a week at (801) 587-3000.

You can also visit to learn more about other mental health classes.  λ