Mental Health and the Safe Community

Community Safety Involves More Than Injury Prevention

Mental Health Training is Key in Life and Death Situations

  • Steve Wise serves on the Community Emergency Response Team in New Lenox, IL.

    Steve Wise cares about safety. He volunteered with the American Red Cross, joined the Safe Communities America coalition in his community of New Lenox, IL, and is a retired safety manager in the rail industry.

    But his latest work is a little different. Wise serves on the Community Emergency Response Team in New Lenox. He responds to disasters like home fires, but he also answers calls from people experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts.

    Critical Action Plan

    Wise became a Certified Mental Health First Aid Responder by completing a training hosted by the New Lenox Police Department and supported by its Safe Communities coalition and instructors from the Sertoma Centre in Matteson, IL.

    Studies show this type of training reduces negative perceptions about people with mental illness and addictions, and those who complete training are more confident in encouraging others to seek professional help.

    "I like the critical action plan they have, the A-L-G-E-E," said Wise, referring to an acronym pulled from the Mental Health First Aid USA handbook and referenced often in class:

    • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
    • Listen nonjudgmentally
    • Give reassurance and information
    • Encourage appropriate professional help
    • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

    "Learning the different mental illnesses that are out there, the symptoms, can give you a better footing for what type of reaction you give someone in need and how you can provide them better help," Wise said.

    Pulling Back the Curtain

    New Lenox, a bucolic town of 25,000 people, is the last place one would think has a problem with suicide or depression, but two to three people die by suicide every year. Another 25 suicide attempts are recorded annually, said Dan Martin, public safety division chief at the New Lenox Police Department.

    "One is too many," he said.

    As a leader in the Safe Communities coalition, Martin is always on the lookout for initiatives and programs that will raise awareness, prevent tragedies and keep residents healthy and safe. He works with Sertoma to provide Mental Health First Aid, and Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) classes for residents and community responders.

    Martin also works with the Suicide Prevention and Awareness Task Group, which organizes a World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10) and sponsors Healing Hearts, a survivors of suicide support group.

    "It's run by one of our task members who lost her 29-year-old son," he said. "The people who have lost loved ones to suicide – they're at risk as well. People don't know that. But it's statistically proven if you do lose a loved one by suicide, someone that's been close to that person could be suicidal as well."

    An individual who loses a job might also be at risk.

    "We hear the message loud and clear," Martin said. "That's why we feel strongly about putting on the Job and Resource Fair every year to try to get people gainfully employed to help with (job loss) depression and those thoughts."

    Erasing the Stigma One Class at a Time

    Gia Washington, community development manager at Sertoma, hopes people walk away from her classes understanding recovery is possible for those struggling with mental health conditions. She also strives to empower first-aid responders with the information and tools they need to overcome barriers.

    "Often times, the people closest may not recognize what is going on," she said. "So, we need people in all fields to be able to provide support.

    "We also find sometimes that people mean well and they want to help, but they will say things that will do more harm than good. Open a dialogue, don't judge. Because sometimes when people are struggling, they already are judging themselves."