- Associated Press - Monday, July 7, 2014

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - Thirty people being trained in “mental health first aid” this week will bring what they learn to the rest of New Hampshire.

Community mental health care workers and police officers are among those attending the five-day session in Manchester to become certified as instructors who can teach others how to recognize the signs of mental illness, de-escalate a crisis situation and provide referrals to community resources.

The goal is to create a wider network of people, from teachers and librarians to police and clergy, who understand what mental illness might look like, but as with traditional first aid providers, don’t diagnose or treat illness.

The program started in Australia and was brought to the United States by the National Council for Behavioral Health. Charles Ingoglia, the council’s senior vice president, said more than 225,000 people in the U.S. have been trained since then, including about 100 in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley region.

Suellen Griffin, president of West Central Behavioral Health in Lebanon, said teachers, nursing home workers and families that were trained by her staff came away with a better understanding of mental illness and a greater sense of empathy.

“Their fears and beliefs regarding people with mental illness were challenged, and they completed the course feeling better prepared to safely intervene in a mental health crisis,” she said.

Sgt. Mike Brinkman of the Rochester Police Department said the weeklong training will help build on the Crisis Intervention Team the department created in 2009.

“Hopefully we’ll take away some ability to better broadcast the need for helping people in crises situations,” he said. “And hopefully I can bring some insight to some of the guys about techniques on how to deal with people in these situations.”

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte and U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster were in Manchester for the opening. Along with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, Ayotte and Kuster sponsored legislation last year to provide $20 million in grants for similar training programs around the country.

Kuster described her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and her own realization that behaviors that came with her mother’s brain decline were not necessarily intentional. Those with mental illness need intervention, support and compassion, she said.

“This is not their choice. They would not be choosing to be this way,” she said. “It’s important for all of us, and all of you, to take the training you have and go out in the community and help people to understand.”

The training is being offered by the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association and the state Department of Health and Human Services. Each of those certified as instructors this week will be required to hold at least three eight-hour sessions in their communities to maintain their certifications, said Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas.

“It is the right thing to do, and frankly the type of modest invest we make here will have much greater dividends,” he said. “This is not a training that is a one-and-done endeavor.”

In December, the state agreed to expand mental health services to settle a lawsuit that accused it of needlessly confining people in hospitals because it lacked community treatment options.

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