Peak Wellness Course Teaches How to Help Those Who Show Mental Illness Symptoms
By Becky Orr, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – A class offered by Peak Wellness Center teaches people how to spot signs of mental illness and help someone.

Mental Health First Aid is part of a worldwide effort. An Australian couple started the course, which has been taught throughout the United States and Europe.

Lou Dowell teaches the classes on behalf of Peak Wellness Center, a local company that offers mental health services and substance abuse treatment.

The eight-hour course helps people, in part, because it teaches students what not to do, Dowell said.

It’s important to be truthful with a person who has symptoms of a mental illness, she said. But the encounter should not be confrontational.

“And always, always give them a choice,” Dowell said. “The whole idea is to keep them in a safe place where they feel safe until you can get someone who is trained” to help.

Classes can be offered at people’s job sites, neighborhoods, workplaces and schools, she said. She typically splits the eight-hour course into two segments.

The course provides ways to help a person experiencing symptoms of mental illness. But it also helps people interacting with them to feel safer because they understand what really is going on.

Completion of the course is not meant to turn someone into a clinician or caseworker, she said.

Teaching students to be safe is the first rule, she said. Coursework will help students know who to contact for help. “If there is a physical danger present, you always call 911,” she said.

But the majority of people with mental illness are not violent, she said.

The course helps reduce the stigma of mental illness and makes it less scary for those who observe the symptoms, according to Dowell.

The local course has an initial cost of about $69 a person. But Peak Wellness will take student income into account. People taking the courses also get continuing education credits.

Bryan Gibb is the director of public education at the National Council for Behavioral Health, based in Washington, D.C. Mental Health First Aid is a department of the council, he said.

“We try to teach people how to recognize what those symptoms are and some proven effective ways to de-escalate those, but maintain safety and comfort of those giving first aid,” he said.

Sometimes people suffering a mental illness incorrectly get bumped into a category of willfulness, he said. People with depression might be told to pull themselves together or cowboy up, he added.

The course does not teach people to diagnose, he said.

Since 2008, 500,000 people have been trained through the course. The mental health division wants to train 500,000 more this year, he said.