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Mental Health First Aid plan advancing at State Capitol

Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, authored a bill that would appropriate $250,000 to expand a state program training members of the public to identify and assist those facing mental health challenges. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Kirsten Adams)

PHOENIX - Representatives from law enforcement, behavioral health and faith-based groups are urging lawmakers to expand a state training program that helps community members recognize and assist those facing mental health challenges.

Among other benefits, they say making the Mental Health First Aid program available to more people can help prevent violent outbursts like the 2011 shootings in Tucson that left six people dead and gravely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

"I think that we've got the basis of a program, but we need to expand it," said Emily Jenkins, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Council of Human Service Providers. "We need broader community engagement at every level of income and social strata."

Jenkins and others testified Feb. 27 before the House Appropriations Committee unanimously endorsed HB 2570, sponsored by Reps. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, and Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, which would appropriate $250,000 to expand the program. It now moves to the House Rules Committee.

Arizona launched Mental Health First Aid after the Tucson shooting through a partnership of the Arizona Department of Health Services, the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare and various community-based organizations. The curriculum, created by mental health professionals in Australia, is taught in 20 counties.

To date, the Arizona Department of Health Services estimates about 80 people have been certified to teach Mental Health First Aid and more than 2,600 people have participated in the training.

Expanding the program would allow the state to allocate money for more training sessions. The 12-hour classes are hosted by several service providers contracted by the state and are usually offered for free.

Orr said he and Steele, who both have worked in mental health care, identified the Mental Health First Aid program as a possible solution to community violence after working with law enforcement, first responders and those in the mental health system and the faith community.

"I think this is a good bill not only because it helps serve people, but it reduces the strain on the judiciary and the criminal justice system," he said.

Elaine Groppenbacher, a priest and former social worker, told lawmakers that she has used what she learned in Mental Health First Aid training to recognize people facing mental health challenges and help them find treatment.

Groppenbacher, who serves several Valley communities, said all of those places have people who live with mental health challenges.

"They desperately want to know how to support people and families in our communities," she said.

Tucson police Sgt. Jim Kirk compared Mental Health First Aid training to a neighborhood watch program. Kirk, a coordinator for the crisis intervention program in southern Arizona, said training community members to be aware of signs of mental challenges could help police respond faster.

"We're training the community in what to look for, to educate individuals as far as mental illness symptoms and the resources that are available - also, how to interact with police so we can be on the front end of some of these things before they become violent."

Krysta Laureno, a trainer in the newly created Youth Mental Health First Aid program, said that training would help parents tell the difference between normal and abnormal behavior in children. The new curriculum, introduced by Mental Health First Aid USA, focuses on helping adults recognize the signs of mental health challenges and crises in young adults.

Laureno works at the Family Involvement Center in Phoenix, a state-funded nonprofit that offers services to families and children with behavioral health problems. She's one of two Youth Mental Health First Aid trainers in Maricopa County but said a lack of funding has prevented both from leading training sessions to date.

"Youth mental health first aid would also be able to succeed from this bill," she said.

Steele told the committee she's committed to improving mental health awareness and treatment because she lost a friend to suicide last year. Steele said about one person succeeds in committing suicide in Arizona every day.

"That has to change," she said.

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