'I see people in despair all the time'

Certificate programs provide tools to reach out to those suffering from mental health issues


He could recognize the signs of distress in military veterans attending Santa Fe Community College, Gregory Scargall said, and he would reach out, offer support. But it wasn't until after he took an eight-hour training program a couple of months ago that he felt he had the right tools to successfully intervene.

Just a week after Scargall, coordinator of the school's Veterans Resource Center, completed the Mental Health First Aid certification course at the college, a veteran came into his office distraught, "verbalizing his peril." Taking a cue from the training, Scargall employed a direct approach, asking the man, "Are you going to kill yourself?"

Shortly after, Scargall said, the man was speaking with a counselor. "He was starting to fight."

It was a relief for Scargall, who was still grieving the loss of another veteran enrolled at the college who had taken his own life last fall.

He is among more than 1 million people nationwide -- including 14,000 in New Mexico -- who have become certified in Mental Health First Aid, what Scargall said is like CPR for mental health issues. The international initiative began in the U.S. a decade ago through the nonprofit National Council for Behavioral Health.

The program's start in the U.S. came as colleges and universities across the country were shaken by the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shooting rampage, in which Seung-Hui Cho, a student who had suffered from anxiety and depression, killed 32 people and injured 17 others. Cho killed himself after the attack.

That mass shooting and others prompted a greater focus on mental health at college campuses, where anxiety and depression had been escalating among students since the 1990s.

The rates have continued to rise, sometimes overwhelming college counseling staff members, according to a 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, based at Pennsylvania State University.

In a spring 2016 report by the American College Health Association, 37 percent of students surveyed said they had been so depressed in the past year that they found it difficult to function, and 58 percent said they suffered from severe anxiety; 10 percent said they had thought about suicide. Each of those numbers had increased from spring 2012, when 31 percent of students surveyed had reported depression, 50 percent reported anxiety and 7 percent had suicidal thoughts.

Janelle Johnson, the senior counselor at Santa Fe Community College, said mental health struggles often lead students to drop out of college. Mental Health First Aid, she said, is a way to offer greater support to those students in need by helping staff and peers feel comfortable reaching out. "It's gaining momentum," she said.

"A person who is not a trained provider can intervene and get someone some help," Johnson added during a training session in late March at the college.

Instructor Julie Raborn,

meanwhile, drilled about

30 trainees on the first-aid action plan: Assess for risk of suicide, listen, give reassurance, encourage professional help, encourage self-help.

She gave the group advice on how to talk to a person in crisis -- and what not to say. "I've heard someone say, 'You just don't want to be happy,' " Raborn told the group. "I was like, 'Did that really come out of your mouth?' "

"Do not trivialize a person's experiences," she said.

Never leave a person alone if he or she may be suicidal, Raborn said, even to find help.

The community college has been holding the interactive certification course for school staff and the public at no cost through a partnership with the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which received a national grant to conduct the training statewide. The last of three sessions with the agency's instructors is scheduled April 28.

But the school will continue to offer the program long after that date. LaKiesha Cotton, who heads the mental health initiative for the child welfare agency's Behavioral Health Division, said a full-time faculty member at the college is now certified to train others.

That's the goal, she said -- to equip as many people as possible with the skills to help a person in crisis.

"It's really important for us to get this great information out there and have it be sustainable," Cotton said.

The Children, Youth and Families Department has provided versions of the training to staff at the Santa Fe School for the Arts and Sciences and The MASTERS Program, counselors at Santa Fe Public Schools, Albuquerque police, state police and foster parents, among others, she said.

The number of people per capita in New Mexico who are certified in Mental Health First Aid is among the highest in the nation. The state also has a high level of need for mental health awareness and intervention that extends far beyond college campuses, as it wrangles with the effects of the nation's highest rates of poverty and unemployment.

"I see people in despair all the time," Scargall said.

The state's suicide rate, at a 21-year high in 2015, is ranked fourth in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For years, New Mexico had one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths. In 2015, however, it dropped from second to seventh, as states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine saw steep rises in drug deaths and New Mexico saw a slight decline, according to the CDC.

Yuri Findlay, the community college faculty member who is now certified to provide training, said he initially planned to teach Mental Health First Aid as part of the school's allied health professions program. But he then realized the benefit of offering it to the general public, as well.

"I think the community college is a good place for that outreach," he said.

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com. The New Mexican is the sister newspaper of The Taos News.