By Katie Callahan (File photo)
Alexandria’s latest mental health first aid class started with a pointed question.
“What are the terms heard in the community negatively associated with mental illness?” asked Alia Fulwood, special projects and business services account manager for the city’s department of community and human services.
The responses came back tentatively.
“We want to break through the stigmas with information,” said Rhonda Williams, therapist director of older adult clinical services at the department, who jumped in after the group of five residents participating in the program exhausted their supply of pejoratives. “A lot of things we’ve heard for years and years are just rubbish.”
Williams crumpled up the list that had been made and tossed it toward a waste bin to mark the start of the first of two four-hour sessions on mental health first aid. This is Williams’ third time teaching the course since its inception a little more than a year ago and Fulwood’s first.
The duo believe the program is beginning to make headway, helping community members understand mental illness and dispelling the stigma and fear surrounding it. Fulwood said a string of recent incidents has forced people to recognize that mental illness is not an isolated issue limited to a small group of people.
The tragic circumstances surrounding the suicide of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds’ son comes instantly to Fulwood’s mind. Austin “Gus” Deeds, who had long struggled with mental illness, stabbed his father before taking his life last November.
“The story of the senator’s son made me say out loud to my family, ‘I’ve got to do something about helping people realize when their family members are in crisis.’ And literally two weeks later, Mike Gilmore, our director at that time of DCHS, said they were going to pay for people to be trained,” Fulwood said.
But Williams said efforts to promote awareness are not new. Many began after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Even earlier, in 2005, former President George W. Bush held a conference on mental health and aging, but it failed to gain the public’s attention, she said.
“The government’s been aware. I think the people have become more aware now and that’s what’s creating the interest,” Williams said.
Fulwood said that through the Port City’s mental health first aid training, partially sponsored by the nonprofit Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center and the Alexandria Community Services Board, people better understand the struggles those with mental illness face daily. And it gives mental health professionals a broader reach.
“I just personally am so happy to be a part of it because I feel like I could reach so many more people by conducting this class than I ever could by the people walking into this office,” Fulwood said.
Educating residents about mental illness is just the first step, said Williams.
“In my personal opinion, the challenge is when you get the information and the education out here, that’s just part of it,” Williams said. “But the first area that constantly gets cut on the budgets is mental health so how are you going to make sure you have the network there to provide the safety net?”
That may be changing as mental illness remains in the national spotlight. In 2013, President Barack Obama released a report entitled, “Now is the Time: The President’s Plan to Protect our Children and our Communities by Reducing Gun Violence,” threw his support behind mental health treatment services and budgeted $115 million this past fiscal year toward the cause.
Participants in Williams’ and Fulwood’s class learn to recognize signs and symptoms of sufferers, assess risk of suicide or harm, listen non-judgmentally and provide reassurance with the goal of encouraging the potentially mentally ill to seek help. The instructors emphasize that first responders do not treat, but connect people who may need more immediate aid with helpful resources.
Alexandria’s free training classes, which generally see between 10 and 20 participants (for more information, go to alexandriava.gov/dchs), will run through June of next year. It’s an opportunity that should have been made available long ago, said Williams.
“The word needs to get out, and if people can get the help they need, people are going to start to have a whole different take on mental illness,” she said.