So I Just Became a Mental Health First Aid Instructor And Here Is What I Learned » VSB

Featured, Theory & Essay

So I Just Became a Mental Health First Aid Instructor And Here Is What I Learned

I can breathe now. After spending the past 13 months trying to get accepted and five days powering through a dense curriculum and teaching simulations, I finally received my certification as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. Therapy and chicken wings for everyone. I first heard of the Mental Health First Aid course as a recommendation from Chirlane McCray, writer, editor, and First Lady of New York City, as she explained the city’s ThriveNYC campaign at a mental health roundtable she hosted at her residence. The city intends to certify 250,000 people in Mental Health First Aid by the end of 2020, so I signed up for the eight-hour course a few months later. 

The course teaches you to identify and engage with people developing a mental health issue or experiencing a mental health crisis, “how to offer and provide initial help, and how to guide a person toward appropriate treatments and other supportive help” per the manual. Fortunately, no matter how much your inner empath or goodest intentions lead you reach for that cape, it doesn’t require or empower you to diagnose and “fix” people or wipe people’s woes away. You won’t be a therapist after a week. Stand down, future Iyanla.

I learned a lot while soaking up the course material and interacting with the trainers and other students. Here are some highlights.

1. A capable, prepared teacher makes all the difference. A few weeks back I went to a two-day ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Training) course way out yonder at Fort Totten in Queens, with a group of Army Reserve folks. My homeboy Nick Gaines, Suicide Prevention Program Director for the US Department of Defense and occasional co-host on my podcast, The Extraordinary Negroes, led the course with a woman I’ll call Sally. Like the MHFA course, they recommend teaching the two-day course with a partner, given the density of the material and length of the trainings.

One way to ensure a group of grownups in a classroom setting is bored to the point of stabbiness is to sit your raggedy ass down in front of the projector screen and read from the same book we’re reading from, looking up occasionally more out of obligation than to confirm a connection. Be awkward, laugh nervously, and make dry, powerfully unsuccessful quips, making sure to silently ask “AMITE?” with your eyes as you scan the room, pleading for approval while cackling at your own tacky comments. Don’t absorb anything beforehand and give off the I’m-also-seeing-this-shit-for-the-first-time vibe. Sally was motherfucking horrendous.

There’s a lot of material to cover in five days, and talking about promoting life and preventing death gets heavy after a while. Pretending to care about being perceived as knowledgeable, capable, and dynamic is the fucking very least you can do. Don’t be like Sally the Terrible.

2. Asking someone directly if they’re contemplating harming or killing themselves or someone else is much harder than I anticipated. It’s a touchy topic, because we may not be ready for the answer we receive. Both the ASIST and MHFA courses stressed the importance of clarifying someone’s mindset and intentions in order to know how to best proceed. You wouldn’t suggest a suicide hotline or call 911 for a friend just having a really, really, really rough week, so clarity is key. During both trainings, we did extensive role play navigating distressful situations and practicing asking someone directly about taking their own life. And the shit never got easier, even though it was just a simulation. It’s normal to wonder whether asking, “Are you planning to kill yourself?”or “Do you a plan?” could somehow inspire them to act. Thankfully, it doesn’t. Knowing the answer will inform your next steps, so it’s better to just count to three, and ask the shit. And don’t gasp in disgust, recoil in horror, or fling holy water in response, please and thank you.

3. I believe I would be a great therapist (someday), but I can still do a shit ton of good without a license or MSW. I’ve struggled with this for some time, and I usually have to be reminded that tweeting, writing essays, hosting and participating in mental health-related events, talking, and checking in on folks and encouraging others to do the same is also important.

Lately, I’ve been working and speaking in spaces with academic folk and experienced mental health professionals. Most of the people in the class I took at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were from city agencies, courts, and office buildings, some mandated by employers, others not. A few weeks ago, in my first meeting as board member for the Center For Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at CUNY Graduate Center, I, 32, listened during introductions as longtime professors, activists, and baby boomers described their lengthy academic/non-profit/mental health backgrounds. I can admit that I sometimes feel out of place or as if a lack of letters behind my name renders my opinions or perspective less valuable or credible in these rooms. I’ve become accustomed to being the Black one without a degree in these spaces, but showing up and speaking up in the Mental Health First Aid instructor’s class helped me see my value.

I made sure they knew that I knew my shit and was just as down to make a difference as they were. I—he who secretly fears public speaking and sometimes rehearses, with sweaty palms, what he’s about to say during ice breakers—spoke up about the mental health campaign and hub for Black wellness that I’m developing, and invited everyone to my event TONIGHT AT THE SCHOMBURG CENTER IN HARLEM, #GetSomeJoy: A Blacktravaganza for Mental Health Awareness. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and many offered themselves and connections to the cause. It put a little rooter in my tooter and it gave me a lil more juice. The lesson: I don’t need a degree to help and connect with people. Sa da tay.


4. Everyone can benefit from learning Mental Health First Aid. If you know people, work with people, birthed people, are friends with people, fuck or ride the subway or elevator with people, encounter people down at the Piggly Wiggly, or married a people, there is something useful in this course for you. No matter what the angry, pint-sized Hotep Warriors tell you, we all have feelings, and we have them to experience them. All of them. For free. And sometimes, those feelings are shitty, like grown-up Rudy Huxtable’s acting abilities and Miley dance steps. And that’s okay. I knew this course was good for me, but learning to teach it reminded me that everyone can save someone. Even you, proud owner of lifetime VIP Flo-Rida concert tickets and a mouth full of fashion braces.

5. To be an effective teacher, you have to love it. Or at least the subject matter. Or your students. Or be a phenomenal actor. Even if you’re not the best speaker, are occasionally musty and shy as hell, or even put blue contact into your Negro eyes in the 2000 and the 17, passion and give-a-fuck can trump all of that. Molding minds, especially arming someone to go out and affect the lives of countless other someones, is not a job you can phone in, Britney Spearsingly. Despite your best efforts, your I-don’t-give-a-shitness is hanging out more often than not and nobody wins. Do the world a favor, spare yourself the agony, and find something you actually give a fuck about.

Filed Under: ,
Alex Hardy

Alexander Hardy is the dance captain for Saint Damita Jo Jackson's Royal Army. He is a writer who escaped Hampton, Virginia and is now based in Panama City, Panama. There, he runs The Colored Boy, and consumes copious amounts of chicken. He has written for, CNN, Gawker, and Huffington Post among other outlets. Alexander can likely be found daydreaming about his next meal or Blacking It Up on someone's dance floor. He also doesn't believe in snow or Delaware. Read more from Alex at

  • Kat

    I died @ Sally was m*therf*cking horrendous.

    Going back to read now. Oxygen on deck.

  • Kat

    Thanks for the info, I’m going to take the class. Every year I host a yearly retreat for Queer Women of Color. It’s an empowerment, growth and change retreat. Lot’s of tears, hugs and laughter. And lots and lots of release. I have mental health professionals there in some capacity but I could certainly use some “extra” info for self to assist. Thanks.

    • Val

      Wow, that sounds great, Kat. Congratulations on that.

      • Kat

        Come. It’s the third weekend in April, in GA. You’re in Cali right? Ever been to BLU?

        Oh it’s rustic…so if rustic isn’t your thing. Yea.

        And…Pat, what did you think of her?

        • Val

          Yep, California. Interesting. I just might.

          I’m about halfway through. She’s hooking up with her co-worker. I’m loving it. I have a half day tomorrow so I plan to finish it them. :-)

          • Kat

            Yep. I mean if you interested in retreats. BLU- Black Lesbians United or NIA Retreat. Both are for Queer WOC. Mine is Shades Retreat. 9yrs next year.

            • LMNOP

              That’s so great that you do that. We sure have some pretty amazing people commenting here.

              • Word!

              • Kat

                I honestly love it. It’s exhausting, frustrating and rewarding all at the same dang time. I look forward to it every year. Planning, fielding questions and getting WOC ready for a weekend in the woods. Yep…the No internet, cable or shopping. Focus on self and and let the world be.

          • Kat

            Oh….that’s a good Always a good *part*.

        • Marlynarodarte

          Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours & have longer with friends and family! !dt33c:
          On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. Follow this link for more information
          ??;?? http://GoogleFinancialCashJobs323TopFlowGetPaid$97/Hour ????????????????????????????????????????????????????::::::!dt33c:….,….

  • siante

    Congrats on receiving your certification & thank you for sharing your journey:) I remember a post a while back where your transparency opened up a forum for people to discuss their struggles, so to read this now is incredibly inspiring.

  • miss t-lee

    Congrats to you Alex. Sounds like you’ve found something you’re passionate about.

  • blueevey

    Ohhhhhh! Please get an msw! (Masters in social work) as a bsw, one day I’ll get there but there aren’t enough ppl with social wk degrees doing social work. And the ppl doing the work don’t have the degrees or the skill sets bUT they do have the passion. Aaand I’m a bit elitist when it comes to the title of social worker, so there’s that too. Everyone should have an msw! Also, I wish this was in ca.

    One day, I too will have an msw and eventually be an lcsw (20 yr plan? Inshallah)

    • LMNOP

      Just being nosy, what do you do now? I seriously thought about doing social work and it’s still in the back of my mind as “maybe someday.”

      • Cheech

        Speaking for a cousin who has one, it could lead to a prosperous career teaching (and in the evenings running a pizza restaurant) in East Porterville.

      • Val

        You’d be good at it.

        • LMNOP

          Aw, thanks!

          • MsSula

            Seriously, you would be excellent at it. So go for it! (I am in the business of pushing people to achieve their callings. :-)

        • MsSula

          Wouldn’t she though?

      • blueevey

        Uber. I got the ‘dream job’ with cps and quit around the 3 yr mark-2 yrs ago exactly. Haven’t found anything else because I haven’t really looked. May switch up population’s and focus on adults and not childRen but after all the burnout and craziness of the last 2 yrs I don’t know.

        As for other jobs, it depends on ur skill set and passions I’d say. A msw is one road to being a licensed therapist, lcsw, and apparently a more seeker out tittle than an mft. There’s also public administration or nonprofit administration. That’s the beauty of sw, it’s not about only hospitals and children, it’s about helping others help othemselves. Like community organizing, like obama. Or working on policy, or …

        • LMNOP

          CPS must be really rough, I don’t know that I could do that. I’ve had a few social service jobs that had emotionally draining days, I worked with homeless youth and at a DV shelter, it’s hard to see people up against the world when there really aren’t a lot of resources available to help.

          But CPS is something else entirely. I only know a few people who have done that, and it seems to really take it’s toll on all of them. If you like working with kids, I think a lot of other social work jobs working with kids would give you a chance to get to know and enjoy your clients, not just be called in for worst case scenarios. Either way, good luck finding something that works for you and you enjoy!

    • theaythmonth

      Question: what do people with social work degrees do if it’s not social work? What else are they doing with that degree?

      • Epsilonicus

        They do social work, just not therapy. There is a whole macro approach to social work. Most social workers are doing some sort of “clinical” practice though

      • siante

        A lot of people with social work degrees that I know have either started a non profit or are in the process of starting one.

      • blueevey

        Lol I answered that in response to someone else. There’s management position that require a msw. Becoming a lcsw, licensed clinical social worker, is one way to become a therapist and from my recent understanding the more sought out title for therapists. And community organizing, like Obama, and public policy, and more macro level work as opposed to micro which is what ppl usually associate swwith

  • Only Alex can treat a mental health worker like bad macaroni. Too funny.

    Good luck with the event. It sounds very helpful and lord knows we got a ways to go on this issue.

  • Darkchloe144

    “Do the world a favor, spare yourself the agony, and find something you actually give a fuck about.”
    Great piece, and keep up the immensely inspiring work!

  • AzucarNegra

    Congrats. Great piece and timely considering all the ish that is going down

  • Val

    “…in my first meeting as board member for the Center For Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at CUNY Graduate Center…”

    Dang, talk about burying headlines, you are doing big things, Family. That and getting your certification as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor is big time! And very inspiring. I need to get up off my behind and do some stuff. Thanks, Man. And a big gigantic congratulations!

    • AzucarNegra

      Hey you saw your girl’s interview on Breakfast Club?

      • Val

        Angela? If so, nope.

        • AzucarNegra
          • Val

            Cool, thanks, Tam. I’m going to watch in a few minutes. Angela is on TVOne right now if you want to watch.

          • Val

            Just saw it. Good stuff as always. Thanks!@disqus_vKQB0HuMfu:disqus

      • AKA The Sauce

        I did and she is MY girl…Val just watched from the distance.

        • AzucarNegra

          I will allow you and Val to fight that one out.

        • Val

          But did you see her on TV One for a full hour last night. Ha!

          • AKA The Sauce

            No…I had baseball practice

            • Val

              Baseball? Pro baseball?

              • AKA The Sauce


                • Val


                  • AKA The Sauce

                    Men’s Senior Baseball League.

    • VSS’ and VSB’s are dashit!!


    Alex, you are one of my favorite people in the whole wide internet and I love this so much.

    Don’t underestimate yourself, you are doing great things and helping a lot of people.

More Like This