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A New Skill for Corrections Professionals: Mental Health First Aid
By Bryan V. Gibb
Published: 08/31/2015

Mentalhealth s Training the entire staff of a large organization in something new and innovative is no easy task. So accomplishing that feat in less than one year is truly remarkable. I’m proud to say that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections collaborated with the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to do just that. The purpose of the aggressive initiative was to train 15,000 corrections officers and other employees across the state department in a program called Mental Health First Aid. Now that the Commonwealth has tackled the training, I’m hoping other states will follow suit. It’s time for us to address mental health in correctional facilities on a national scale.

Mental Health First Aid is a publically available, skills-based, in-person training. Participants are taught a five-step action plan that equips them with the tools they need to support others. Mental Health First Aid teaches participants to notice the signs and symptoms of a possible mental health or substance use disorder. The program also educates participants on the tools and resources available to respond to a crisis, refer someone to supportive services, or deescalate a situation, if necessary.

The National Council for Behavioral Health, together with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Mental Health, oversees Mental Health First Aid in the United States and certifies individuals as instructors to lead the 8-hour course. Similar to traditional First Aid and CPR, Mental Health First Aid is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or experiencing a crisis until professional treatment is obtained or the crisis resolves.

In March 2014, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel tasked his training academy director and psychology office staff to train, within one year, every employee in the 8-hour Mental Health First Aid course. Many thought the task was unachievable, but Training Academy Director Michael Dooley and his staff took the challenge head on, working around the clock to implement the program.

Why Mental Health First Aid?

Corrections officers have many responsibilities. More and more, those responsibilities include knowing how to respond to individuals who are experiencing a mental illness. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), more than half of individuals in jails and prisons have a mental illness, and more than a quarter of inmates in state facilities have a recent history of treatment for a mental illness [1]. In fact, the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments suggests that 1.5 million people with a mental illness will be arrested each year [2]. With an overwhelming number of individuals with mental illnesses in our correctional system, providing staff with support and education on how to react appropriately is key.

‘Training’ the Trainers

On behalf of the National Council, I led a 5-day training at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Training Academy in Elizabethtown to certify 35 Department of Corrections’ employees to deliver Mental Health First Aid. Interested employees had the opportunity to apply to become a certified trainer, so they could then teach their colleagues. These employees were selected to become certified trainers based on their leadership characteristics, temperament, compassion and overall interest in the topic of mental health.

The Mental Health First Aid training I led was modified specifically for public safety professionals. As such, it included more background on psychosis, extreme situations and how to respond properly in a crisis. Although Mental Health First Aid teaches the same response actions in each module, the scenarios are tailored for each audience. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people with mental illness are ending up in jails and prisons, especially if they demonstrate behavior around mental illness that can also be classified as criminal acts. As such, instead of highlighting how a manager might support an employee who seems distressed, the public safety module may provide an example of how a corrections officer might appropriately respond to an inmate with scars on their legs from hurting themselves.

Following the training, certified Department of Corrections’ employees took their learnings and went to various Pennsylvania institutions to teach other staff members with support and enthusiasm. Specifically, staff instructors, with assistance from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, offered the course throughout the state prison system, which includes 26 facilities, between April 2014 and March 2015. As of March 31, 2015, all Department of Corrections’ employees completed the course. As a result, the Department of Corrections was among the first organizations nationally to obtain and administer a version of the curriculum geared specifically for public safety professionals.

Reaping the Rewards - Positive Staff Feedback

Corrections can be a very stressful and risky job. On top of long hours and shift work, corrections officers are regularly interacting with individuals who are often angry, violent or depressed. This can affect their own mental health and stress levels, as well – which is what makes Mental Health first Aid so valuable. Corrections officers who receive the training will certainly learn how to respond to inmates in need, but can also learn to recognize potential symptoms in themselves, their colleagues or loved ones. We were pleased to find that while some employees were skeptical at first, they left the trainings feeling educated and empowered.

Moving forward, new Department of Corrections’ employees will receive the course during their basic training as a pre-serve requisite to help build confidence, increase overall wellness and health, and remain resilient in the face of an often difficult job. I encourage other departments to follow suit.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid and to find a training near you, visit: http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/.

[1] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/mhppji.pdf
[2] http://csgjusticecenter.org/mental-health/publications/tuesday-ted-style-talk-at-natcon15/

Bryan V. Gibb is the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Director of Public Education for Mental Health First Aid USA.


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