Life / Health

Recognizing the signs of mental health distress

Mental health first aid training gaining more traction.

More than 250,000 people in Canada have received mental health first aid training since 2007.


More than 250,000 people in Canada have received mental health first aid training since 2007.

Years ago while running a social club for adults with mental illness, Keith Brumwell noticed a seated young woman start to hyperventilate.

When he asked her what was going on, she told him she felt pain in her chest.

“One of the things with a panic attack is a lot of the symptoms are similar to a heart attack,” said Brumwell, a retired RCMP officer who lives in Dartmouth, N.S. He immediately told someone to call 911.

“I told her, ‘You may be having a panic attack, but we’re going to get this checked out,’” he recalled. Brumwell asked the woman to watch his arm and as he raised and lowered it, he told her to take a deep breath and then exhale. He repeated this several times, all the while reassuring her that someone was coming to help her with the pain.

By the time paramedics arrived, the woman had stopped hyperventilating. After checking her, they determined she wasn’t having a heart attack. She later told Brumwell this wasn’t the first time she had experienced this and he suggested she talk to her physician to get some help.

Equipping people with the knowledge and skills to handle such a situation is something Brumwell does through the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses he has been teaching since 2009.

While regular first aid might teach people about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, mental health first aid teaches people to notice the signs and symptoms of a mental health issue and encourage those affected to seek professional help and other supports, said Brumwell. It’s a type of training that is growing in popularity with several organizations across the country bringing the program through their doors.

The Mental Health First Aid Canada program has been operating under the Mental Health Commission of Canada since 2010. The Alberta Mental Health Board first brought the program to Canada from Australia in 2006.

There is the basic course for adults with six variations that target those involved with youth, veterans, First Nations, Northern Peoples, Inuit and seniors. The latter two were introduced in January.

More than 250,000 people in Canada have been trained since 2007; more than 31,000 were trained this year.

The commission is now working with partners in the United States and Australia to bring new MHFA programs to Canada, including one for first responders and public safety workers and another for youth, said Mike Pietrus, MHFA director at the commission.

Brumwell, who teaches the basic and veterans courses, became interested in mental health years ago after two family members started experiencing mental health issues. He also encountered many in conflict with the law who were living with mental illness. After retiring from the RCMP, he co-managed the Halifax-Dartmouth Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Pietrus said MHFA could help someone recognize a developing problem. It also gives people the tools and the confidence to deal with a crisis mental health situation.

For example, Brumwell said he teaches about the signs and symptoms of someone at risk for suicide and what to ask.

He recalled a time when he noticed a young man with schizophrenia becoming increasingly withdrawn and seemingly depressed at the social club.

“I told him what I had observed and that I was concerned about him, and asked him directly: ‘Were you thinking of killing yourself?’”

“He said, ‘yes.’”

“We ended up getting him some help,” said Brumwell, stressing that they always teach people to leave the actual risk assessment to a professional.

A takeaway for many is a greater awareness that they can actually make a difference, said Pietrus.

Brumwell said another element to MHFA is helping reduce the stigma around mental illness by getting people to talk about it.

Different groups are starting to pick up on the training.

The Regional Municipality of York has been providing mental health-related training to staff since 2015, including the MHFA basic and seniors courses.

Marilyn Henry, of Penetanguishene, Ont., said she learned MHFA because she volunteers at a homeless shelter where many of the clients live with mental illness.

“People’s mental health goes up and down, like at any time somebody could be feeling overwhelmed or sad … this kind of information is always useful,” she said.

Katie Cino, a health promoter with Niagara Region Public Health, said it was the non-judgmental listening aspect of the training that resonated with her the most.

“I think those skills are … instrumental throughout your life,” said Cino, who provides MHFA training to organizations on behalf of the municipality. “Just to be able to talk freely and openly and comfortably with someone and to feel that you’re not being judged could be really beneficial.”

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