About 20 people took a first aid course in Thunder Bay on Thursday and Friday — but instead of practising CPR, they learned how to help someone suffering a mental health crisis.

Facilitator Colleen Peters said mental health first aid is just as important as physical first aid when it comes to saving lives.   

"We know that mental health [problems] can be just as disabling as physical health problems," she said.

"[Mental health first aid is] teaching people ... how to identify whether someone might be experiencing a mental health problem or [is] in a full-blown crisis [and] how to support that person until they can get connected to the most appropriate professional treatment." 

In the two-day course, Peters covers topics ranging from how to talk to someone who is at risk of suicide to helping someone who is having a panic attack. She also teaches participants to acknowledge the stress inflicted by assisting people with mental health issues and ensure they care for themselves.

The John Howard Society, where Peters works, originally provided mental health first aid training to employees working in the justice system, because people with mental illness are over-represented in courts and corrections facilities compared to the general population.  

Now, the society offers the course to the general public, including agencies, businesses and individuals, at least three times a year.

"This is something that we want to do for the community," said Peters. 

"It's a kind of crime prevention strategy as well," she added, because untreated mental illness can affect behaviour that gets people in trouble with the criminal justice system. 

Courtney Pennock

Courtney Pennock is one of about 20 people who took a mental health first aid course at the John Howard Society in Thunder Bay on Thursday and Friday. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

The Canadian Mental Health Association says one in five people will experience mental illness in their lifetime. Mental Health First Aid Canada says it's one in three.   

That means everyone can benefit from mental health first aid training, Peters said. "A friend, a colleague, a family member can all experience mental health problems at any given time."

Courtney Pennock, a second-year student in the Social Services Worker program at Confederation College, was one of the course participants. She said the training will be helpful for her future professional life, but agrees with Peters that it is also relevant personally.

"It doesn't even have to be a client, but just friends, family," Pennock said. "Just being more aware of mental health and the importance of self-care and how to properly approach an individual facing mental health issues [is important]."