Disclaimer: I am going to talk about when I learned. If you’re interested you should take the class, don’t assume I have said everything you need to know. Link is here: Mental Health First Aid
The central acronym is ALGEE. It stands for:
Assess the person for risk of suicide or harm
Give encouragement and information
Encourage seeking professional help
Now this is a crisis intervention technique for lay people. It is like CPR, just designed to help a person ride out a crisis until professional help is available.
The very first assessment is whether the situation is safe for you to engage with the person in crisis. Someone who is violent, for example, it may be best to simply call 911, explain the situation, and stay until help arrives. Usually this will be law enforcement, hopefully it will include a crisis team or officers who are trained for mental health situations.
After you decide to engage, assess them for risk of suicide or harm. It’s okay to simply ask if they’ve thought of harming or killing themself. If they say yes, you can then ask about whether they have a plan, what the plan is, and if they have the tools to carry it out. If the person is clearly in the midst of an attempt — they have a gun, they say they’ve already taken the pills, they are bleeding — you will call 911 right away. Then focus on keeping them alive and safe until professionals arrive.
In my personal world, most people having mental distress are not suicidal. Depressed, anxious, even psychotic, but not suicidal. Engaging with them is as basic as asking, “How are you feeling today? Is everything alright?” And then listen without judging. Many people just want to be heard and taken seriously. Something about telling your story is cathartic for people.
When it is your turn to speak, provide encouragement and information. Do not give advice. Do not make promises that you can’t keep. Also don’t be too glib. “It will be alright” is not a valid comment for a situation where it clearly isn’t and possibly won’t be alright. It feels patronizing to the person hearing it. And a person in distress might not be able to hear that the feeling will pass.
Encourage professional help and self help. Ask what has helped in the past. Have they seen a therapist before? It might be good to see one now. Provide grounding techniques, going through the exercise with the person. Help them reframe the situation. Suggest peer support groups or other services. Veterans can be referred to the VA, but they might also need AA or other counselling.
Taking this course does not make me a professional. I simply have some tools in my arsenal for situations that could be frightening or unmanageable to other people. No different than CPR. It doesn’t make you a doctor. But now you can help people survive until long term help can be available.