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Churches Embrace Mental Health Training

Contact: Brian Ruberry, 301-948-1709

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2012 /Christian Newswire/ -- A growing number of churches in the U.S. are turning to an innovative training program to equip their congregations with the skills to recognize mental illness and respond to mental health emergencies. The program, Mental Health First Aid, helps people assess a mental health crisis, select interventions and provide initial help.

"The faith community has always felt a calling to help people, but has not always had the tools to assist people struggling with conditions like depression," says Mike Johnson, an instructor and special projects director at Union Gospel Mission in Seattle. "Shortly after our first training, we realized that this was a resource the faith community had been missing."

Marti Vogt, an instructor who works in the counseling center at Perimeter Church in Duluth, GA., says Mental Health First Aid gives compassionate people the practical skills to complement their spiritual gifts.

"Many times people of faith respond to someone with mental illness by saying 'I'm praying about it,' but now they can do something about it," says Vogt, former chair of the Georgia Suicide Prevention Coalition. "I compare it to seeing a child get hit by a car. You pray, but you also call 911."

While the program has been offered to a wide spectrum of people in the faith community, some instructors see the training as particularly beneficial to clergy.

"Pastors know how to work with couples to save a marriage or deal with issues of faith, but they usually get very little training about mental health problems," says Rita McElhany, an instructor and mental health promotions coordinator at Missouri Department of Mental Health, which disseminates the program with the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.

"Many clergy have already experienced people coming to them for these kinds of problems," says Helen Siporin, a certified instructor and president of Mental Health America of the Central Valley in Fresno, CA. "The training helps them recognize the warning signs of mental illness before the congregants even come to them for help."

Mental Health First Aid is an evidence-based program, which uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess a mental health crisis, select interventions and provide initial help. The training also addresses the risk factors and warning signs of specific illnesses like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance use disorders.