The mental health equivalent of CPR

On August 24, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

In a densely populated community like Somerville, we’ve all had the experience of seeing someone, often someone we know, who appears to be having problems related to mental health.

If we see someone suffering from a physical injury or health problem, most of us won’t hesitate to take action.  At the very least, we’ll ask “Are you okay?” or “Do you need help?”  We may call 911 for professional medical assistance. If we have training in CPR or first aid, we may provide direct assistance until help arrives.

But with mental health issues, most people respond in a different way, and it’s easy to understand why. First of all, it’s harder to be sure what the problem really is. Second, it’s very hard to know what to do.

Fortunately, there is a new training program that can help all of us to know what to do when we see someone showing the warning signs of mental distress. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a novel, evidence-based public education program that teaches participants how to assess a situation, select and implement appropriate interventions and help someone in crisis or who shows symptoms of a mental illness. This groundbreaking training equips people to provide initial help until appropriate professional, peer or family support can be engaged. Participants also learn about the risk factors and warning signs of specific illnesses such as anxiety, depression, psychosis and addiction. They also learn how to initiate timely referral to mental health resources available in the community.

MHFA helps expand people’s knowledge of mental illnesses and their treatments, and to help people understand and accept mental illnesses as medical conditions. Thousands of people at colleges and universities across the USA have become MHFA-certified. Mental Health First Aid USA is disseminated by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, and Somerville is part of this effort. Beginning this fall, the Health Department’s Office of Prevention will offer MHFA on a bi-annual basis.

The 12-hour program, which is open to the public, will be offered over four nights: Oct. 25, Nov.1, 8, and 15 – from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the first-floor conference room in the School of Nursing at 125 Lowell Street. There is a suggested donation of $40.00. Somerville’s MHFA course is cosponsored by the Somerville Health Department and the Somerville Community on Suicide Prevention & Mental Health, with support from the Somerville Community Health Agenda at Cambridge Health Alliance. For more information, please get in touch with Patty Contente at 617-625-6600 ext. 4325 or, or visit

MHFA isn’t the only city-sponsored resource that can help you deal with mental health issues, including your own. If you’ve ever wondered when everyday worries are evolving into depression, when casual drinking may be becoming a problem, or anxieties are impacting your ability to participate in everyday events, there’s an easy way to explore these questions and get the information or help you need: Online screenings provide a free, anonymous, simple option to better understand your emotional health and strategies to support staying healthy.  The Somerville Health Department’s Committee on Suicide Prevention and Mental Health (CSPMH) invites you to take a free, anonymous, screening at In addition, the CSPMH will hold an in-person screening as part of National Depression Screening Day on October 11 from 5 – 8 p.m. at the Somerville Public Library main branch.

Whenever we declare a severe weather emergency here in Somerville – excessive heat in summer or snow in winter – we ask our residents to look out for their neighbors, especially the elderly or those who may need special assistance. Mental health awareness and preparedness is no different and can be just as important.  We know that early intervention can have a significant impact and improve outcomes. The MHFA class and the online screening are just two tools to raise awareness and provide information to assist us in taking positive steps to promote health.

These kinds of programs can, quite literally, save lives. It’s an honor for me to be able to work with the health professionals in our community to deliver these and other critical services to our city and its residents. And I hope you will consider taking the time to get involved.


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