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Lawmaker: Mental Health First Aid funding will help raise awareness

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PHOENIX – A $250,000 appropriation to continue a state program that teaches how to spot signs of mental illness and connect individuals with help will allow even more Arizonans to participate, a Tucson lawmaker said.

“My real social goal on this is that every teacher in Arizona and every law enforcement officer and judicial officer understands the signs of mental illness and at least has the ability to detect ‘is this mental illness? Is this not?’” said Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson.

Along with his seatmate, Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, Orr pushed to continue Mental Health First Aid training that started after the January 2011 shooting in their district that killed six people and gravely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Mental Health First Aid works much like CPR training by instructing people with no medical background to recognize and give support to someone suffering from a mental crisis.

With the grants that made the program possible set to run out, their request sought $500,000. But Orr said $250,000 as a line item in the fiscal 2014 budget would be enough to continue offering Mental Health First Aid training.

“It was not about [being] Republican, Democrat; it was about doing what’s right for Arizona, and particularly for Tucson,” he said.

And while the whole premise of the program has been to train front-line responders, judges and probation officers, Orr said he would like include to include teachers.

“We’re going to work with the Board of Education because teachers have to take elective, continuing-education credits,” he said.

Steven Nagle, a training specialist at the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, said Mental Health First Aid has helped in Tucson, where 87 training sessions have been held since March 2011.

“It has an impact on the community because people become more aware of signs and symptoms of mental health issues, so it’s easier for them to identify somebody who might need help,” he said. “And then they have the skills and the confidence and the framework which they could use to approach somebody who is in mental health stress and get them hooked up with appropriate services.”

Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, the House minority leader, said that while Arizona is still far from having an adequate mental health care system, continuing Mental Health First Aid training is a step in the right direction.

“It will help out in some specific circumstances,” He said. “It will help raise awareness of the issue.”

Claudia Sloan, division chief of communications at the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Division of Behavioral Health, said a key part of helping people suffering from mental illness is addressing the stigma associated with it.

“People in general are scared. We have a concept of stigma against mental illness, which is actually the No. 1 reason to keep people away from treatment,” she said. “Mental Health First Aid is a tool to combat that stigma.”

Orr said that ultimately the goal of the Mental Health First Aid training program is getting rid of the stigma of mental illness altogether.

“I don’t see mental health as a stigma, I don’t see it as a bad thing,” he said. “I see it as simply people who need help, and once they get the help they need, they are incredibly productive and effective members of society.”