Nova Scotia

St. John Ambulance starts mental health first aid course in Nova Scotia

When people see someone get hurt, the first instinct is usually to stop, call 911, maybe look for bleeding. But what if the problem seems to be psychological?

Course is first of its kind in Canada from mainstream first aid organization

Laurel Haché, a Halifax-based St. John Ambulance instructor. started teaching a mental health first aid course in November. (Selena Ross/CBC)

When people see someone get hurt, the first instinct is usually to stop, call 911, maybe look for bleeding.

But what if the problem seems to be psychological? 

"Someone gets hit by a car, everyone stops and helps," says Laurel Haché. "Someone looks odd on the street, everyone walks away."

The only difference between the two situations is the bystander's education, says Haché. The Halifax-based St. John Ambulance instructor started teaching a mental health first aid course in November. It's the first such offering anywhere in Canada from a mainstream first aid organization.

"People tend to walk around people who have mental health issues because they don't know what to say and they're scared to say the wrong thing," Haché said.

"They feel apprehensive because they just honestly don't know."

Her students learn to spot the symptoms of common mental illnesses, to talk people through crises and to help them find qualified help.

The course was developed internationally and brought to Canada several years ago. It's certified through the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the same way defensive driving courses are certified through the Canada Safety Council and taught by third-party instructors.

Until now, the commission has been training independent instructors and advertising the course on their own.

'Extra layer of visibility'

Meaghon Reid of the Mental Health Commission says offering it through St. John Ambulance brings a well-known brand and "that extra layer of visibility" to the concept, and she hopes Haché's classes will speed up what she calls a recent exponential growth in interest.

"Our goal would be [for mental health first aid] to be as pervasive as physical first aid and as legislated as physical first aid," said Reid.

In Nova Scotia, 10 groups have taken the St. John Ambulance course so far, including staff from a trucking association, the 211 help line, family resource centres and Eskasoni. Some individuals have also signed up.

Panic attacks are one of the most common crises, said Reid.

"What do you do in that immediate situation? Well, let's work to remove that person from a busy area and get them somewhere calm and quiet," she said. "Work on breathing."

Severe anxiety can also look like heart attacks, so students learn to get first-time sufferers to hospital.

Psychotic episodes, substance overdose and suicide attempts are also covered, as well as developing problems that people can be trained to spot. For example, depression in a co-worker can come across as social withdrawal, irritability or weight gain or loss.

People learn through role playing, videos and other exercises to approach that person in a way that's likely to help, said Reid.

Campus security team takes part

"You're not sort of saying, 'Oh, it's not that bad' or 'Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,'" she said. "To really listen to the person and reflect back to them what they're saying — 'I'm hearing you're feeling sad and hopeless.'"

The whole Dalhousie University security team took the course last week after a few members took it and came back recommending it, said community safety officer Jake MacIsaac.

Campus security is called to help with panic attacks and other crises, which tend to spike during exam time, he said. The students in those situations tend to need immediate off-campus care, but security staff thought they could get better at smoothing the process and providing comfort, he said.

"Generally it's escalated to a bit of a crisis place, then we'll get a call," said MacIsaac.

"You have these five or 10 or 12 minutes when you are on scene, when we thought we could benefit from knowing where people are at, where they're going, and have confidence to know what's happening."

The private group session provided a "shared common language," he said. 

'Listen non-judgmentally'

Haché spent several years serving in the Royal Canadian Navy and she says she was partly inspired to start teaching mental health first aid after realizing how common post traumatic stress disorder is among military members and first responders.

However, she now believes that all workplaces would benefit, financially and otherwise, from mental health literacy.

"When you look at someone who comes back off a stress leave or anything like that, people walk around them, they tippy-toe around them, they don't know how to talk to them," she said.

"You know what, a lot of times people just want people to reach out and go, 'Hey, how's it going?'"

The biggest lesson from the course, Haché says, is that mental health problems aren't mysterious or scary, even for untrained people.

"The best thing they could do is say, 'I'm here for you,'" she said. "And really listen to them. The biggest part of what we teach in mental health first aid is to listen non-judgmentally."

St. John Ambulance is considering extending the course outside Nova Scotia and the Canadian Red Cross is also looking at adding it, said Atlantic Red Cross spokesman Dan Bedell.

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