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Mental Health First Aid: A Valuable Tool in the Well-Being Toolbox

Charla Bizios Stevens

Mental Health First Aid: A Valuable Tool in the Well-Being Toolbox
ADragan via Getty Images

I am a mental health first aider. What does that mean? And how can it be of use to me or others? Millions of people across the country have been trained in mental health first aid programs, which teaches how to recognize when someone is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis and how to provide the needed support and resources. Mental health first aid is an extension of traditional first aid training, applied to mental health. The concept originated in Australia and was brought to the United States in 2008.

Mental health first aiders are trained not only to recognize signs of mental distress, but also to respond quickly and compassionately. Studies have shown that the program can be effective in reducing the stigma around mental illness, increasing knowledge and understanding of mental health issues, and teaching participants to use a five-step action plan known as ALGEE. The ALGEE action plan is:

  • Approach, assess, and assist with any crisis—including the risk of suicide, trauma, and high anxiety.
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Give the person reassurance, support, and information.
  • Encourage the person to seek appropriate professional help.
  • Encourage the person to seek self-help and other support strategies.

Participants in mental health first aid training come from all walks of life. In my cohort, there were human resource professionals, a pastor, employees of homeless shelters and local libraries, social workers, and community volunteers. First aiders are not therapists nor even peer support. They are simply co-workers, supervisors, and community members who may be better equipped than the general population to have difficult conversations and perhaps be the first line of support in averting a crisis.

Legal employers often struggle with how to have conversations with individuals showing signs of substance use, mental health issues, and burnout. Even when the conversation starts, it is often difficult to gain the trust of a co-worker or subordinate such that they will feel comfortable sharing what may be labeled as a “weakness” or a disability, especially in a high stress and competitive environment. It is also easy to accept the response “I’m fine” and move on without the comfort level to pursue the matter.

The primary goal of mental health first aid is to be present, to actively listen without judgment, and to refer the individual to the proper resources. Law firms, courts, and other legal employers could benefit from having a first aider or two in house and to rely on these individuals to have the first compassionate conversation with someone who may need support. Lawyers and paralegals could also use this training when dealing with clients who have experienced trauma. Further information about mental health first aid can be found at