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Tucson lawmakers: Expand training on mental health challenges

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Tucson lawmakers: Expand training on mental health challenges

Two Tucson lawmakers want to appropriate $500,000 to expand a state program that provides training on identifying and assisting individuals facing mental health challenges.

Republican Rep. Ethan Orr and Democratic Rep. Victoria Steele represent the north Tucson district that includes the Safeway store where a gunman killed six people and wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen others on Jan. 8, 2011.

“What I see in my district is people are hungry to see people come together, despite what they might believe, for rational solutions,” said Orr, author of HB 2570.

Both Orr and Steele, the bill’s only other sponsor, have worked in mental health care.

“It’s very personal for me,” Steele said. “It is for Ethan, too.”

They said they chose Arizona’s Mental Health First Aid program to address the issue because of its proven success.

The program is offered through a partnership of the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Division of Behavioral Health Services, the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare and various community-based organizations. It teaches recognition and responses to mental health challenges and is often compared to CPR training for behavioral health problems.

“We need … to make it easier for people to talk about mental illness,” Steele said. “We all know about cancer, but we really, in general, don’t know that much about mental illness.”

Arizona launched the Mental Health First Aid Program not long after the Tucson shooting in 2011. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, close to 80 people have been certified to teach the course in the state. More than 2,600 people have been trained so far.

The 12-hour sessions prepare community members to recognize and offer assistance when someone experiences a mental health challenge. The courses are usually free and are hosted by several service providers who are contracted by the state.

Krysta Laureano, program manager at the Family Involvement Center in Phoenix, is a certified Mental Health First Aid trainer. The organization is a state-funded nonprofit offering services to families and children with behavioral health problems.

She said that though the center doesn’t currently have money in its budget to offer training sessions Mental Health First Aid could help prevent more violent events like the shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.

“I think yes, definitely, it could help,” she said. “And the reason I’m going to say that is because when you look at these cases, these are not children who are receiving the types of services we offer as a nonprofit.”

Laureano said the training turns school bus drivers, teachers and janitors into a “front line” for mental health care. It could also help destigmatize behavioral health struggles and help people see that mental health problems don’t always mean violence.

“If you can start to understand that as a society, then you can start to get people what they need,” she said.

The bill has been assigned to the House committees on health and appropriations but has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

“I feel very optimistic,” Orr said. “This means a lot to me.”

Mental Health First Aid

  • Created in 2000 and conducted by Mental Health First Aid Australia, a national nonprofit health promotion charity
  • Brought to United States by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Mental Health
  • Replicated in 20 countries
  • Launched in Arizona in 2011

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