Why You Should Attend Mental Health First Aid Training

If you currently work at a library, take a moment to think about your user base. Have you ever served anyone who:

  • Is depressed or anxious?
  • Experiences panic attacks?
  • Is considering self-injury or suicide?
  • Has experienced hallucinations or delusions?
  • Has undergone a traumatic event?
  • Has a substance use disorder?

In all likelihood–no matter what type of position you hold in any type of library–you have. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience a mental illness in a given year. Thankfully, mental health awareness and support systems are growing.

What is Mental Health First Aid?

Mental Health First Aid is a certification program first developed in 2001 by Australian nurse Betty Kitchener and mental health literacy professor Anthony Jorm. The program has grown and now has licensed programs all over the world.

Just as first aid courses teach you how to assess a health situation, give CPR, apply bandages, etc, mental health first aid provides you with the tools needed to identify a mental health need and provide initial support to someone who “may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis” (About, MHFA USA).

The 8-hour course covers all of the topics mentioned at the beginning of this article and more, giving participants the opportunity to practice through role plays, scenarios, and hands-on activities. There are also specialized youth courses available for adults who regularly work with adolescents aged 13 to 18.

There is evidence to back it up. According to their website, “Peer reviewed studies from Australia and across the globe show that the program saves lives, improves the mental health of the individual administering care and the one receiving it, expands knowledge of mental illnesses and their treatments, increases the services provided, and reduces overall social distance toward individuals with mental illnesses by improving mental health literacy. “

What does this have to do with libraries?

I had the opportunity to attend a session in June, and I’m now working with senior management at my organization to provide it to my entire library system. Below, in no particular order, are a few reasons why I think my coworkers (and YOU!) should attend a session and get certified:

It ties in with librarianship perfectly.

A huge part of the training is focused around the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Sound familiar? We already place an emphasis on listening nonjudgmentally, providing information, and giving referrals to professionals or outside help. Additionally, one of the goals of the training is to increase “mental health literacy”. This fits beautifully within our scope and skillset.

We can help ourselves and our coworkers.

Though most of society doesn’t always seem to realize it, working at a library can be a stressful job. The program gives wonderful tools that you can use yourself when needed. It also gives tools to identify struggles, assist, and better understand those around you—and we spend quite a bit of time with our coworkers!

People open up to us.

One of my coworkers always says that “librarians are the bartenders of the information world.” People have an inherent trust for those who work in libraries. Because of that trust, we often end up hearing a lot more than we may have bargained for. It is not unheard of for a patron to open up to a library staff member about an issue they are experiencing, and we need to be aware of the ways we can help and places to which we should refer.

We serve a wide range of individuals.

Public libraries are one of the few places for people to gather or spend time without having to purchase anything. We see a lot of students, individuals with special needs, job-seekers, and individuals experiencing homelessness amongst our regular patron base. Many libraries have been building partnerships with social workers to better provided much-needed services, a topic that has once again come to light with a recent article from NPR.  Mental Health First Aid training for all staff is also needed. It can be hard and stressful to talk to someone who you suspect might be suicidal or who is seeing things that you can’t. The program provides tools for talking with individuals you may have otherwise been hesitant to approach. Because it teaches you how to be an intermediary as you direct individuals to professional help, it works perfectly alongside any already set up arrangements with social work or human services organizations (though that partnership isn’t required).

We WANT to help.

In The Public (2018), library staffer Myra mentions that she sometimes cries herself to sleep at night while thinking about the difficulties the patrons she works with are facing. “We’re only human, right?” I’ve experienced that sentiment. Many people pick libraries as a career because they deeply, truly, care. We want to help people. It can be stressful and upsetting to talk to someone who needs mental health assistance and not know how to help them. This program provides solid steps for how we can guide individuals to that assistance, alleviating that feeling of helplessness.

It’s often free.

Check the Mental Health First Aid website for your country to see what trainings or currently offered. An organization near you may also be willing to bring a session to your organization specifically.

Any questions about the training? Have you attended a session? Reach out with your thoughts in the comments!


Kerri Milliken is a MSI LIS candidate at the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University. Kerri currently works as a learning and development specialist for a public library system in Pennsylvania. Find her on Twitter (occasionally) at @klmillik.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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