When it comes to mental health, most people are not trained how to respond to situations that are crisis or non-crisis situations. Mental health concerns across Arkansas and the United States are at an all-time high. This growing need for mental health services along with an all-time shortage of providers, resources, and transportation has created a huge need in both rural and urban communities that is not being met. According to the Centers for Disease Control more than 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime and 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
One Arkansas rural- based organization, Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, is trying to fill the gap by teaching people across the state about Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). Mental Health First Aid is an international, evidence-based program that prepares participants to interact with a person experiencing a mental health crisis. Participants learn to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use challenges with a five-step action plan. According to Amanda Kuttenkuler, Senior Programs Director for Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, “this evidence-based internationally recognized program takes the guesswork out of how to respond to someone experiencing a mental health challenge”.
Much like traditional first aid, Mental Health First Aid gives participants the tools needed to feel confident in responding to a difficult situation. Mental Health First Aid is about getting the person experiencing a mental health challenge the help they need. That might be directing them to self-help, encouraging professional help, or getting immediate help. The program covers both crisis and non-crisis situations.” Mental health challenges and substance use challenges often go hand in hand so Mental Health First Aid also incorporates substance abuse challenges in their curriculum. “Substance use problems are so prevalent in our communities and our schools that we really cannot address one without the other” according to Kuttenkuler.
Kuttenkuler who has been with the partnership for three years was recently named the top Mental Health First Aid Instructor for the State of Arkansas. Kuttenkuler trained over 580 people last year all over Arkansas. “For me it is about meeting people where they are and changing their outlook on mental health. I have been blessed to share this program with many people from all over this state and every time it’s the same response of “why didn’t we do this earlier”? I love meeting new people and sharing this program with them. My favorite thing is hearing stories about where the training made a real difference in a situation. When you see the words and ideas you give people turn into action that helps someone, that’s how you know you know you are making a difference.”
After a recent training session at a local high school, participants decided to set up an anonymous way for students, parents, and teachers to report a mental health incident anonymously. Within six months, the line had been utilized over 130 times by students with 16 of them experiencing non suicidal self-injury or suicidal thoughts and ideation. The school district was able to get these students immediate help. ARHP has also trained healthcare professionals, educators, and civic groups across the state. One of the latest groups to be taught by ARHP is the entire athletics staff at University of Arkansas at Monticello where their entire staff of coaches and directors were trained in Mental Health First Aid.
Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, a non-profit comprising 15 rural hospitals, 2 community health centers, and 2 medical school universities, recognized the need to address mental and behavioral health when their respective communities voiced the need in 2019 during community health needs assessments conducted throughout south Arkansas. “It is our hope that we are able to provide Mental Health First Aid to as many teachers, students, community members, church leaders, healthcare providers, and emergency responders as possible,” said Mellie Bridewell, President and Founder of the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership. By increasing the amount of mental health “gate-keepers” in our rural communities and throughout the state, it will save lives.”