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

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

Alex Hardy


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.

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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

  • Freebird

    I dig how self aware you are in your writing. Good work brother

  • NonyaB?

    “My certification as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. … as a recommendation from … First Lady of New York City … at a mental health roundtable she hosted at her residence. …As board member for … CLAGS at CUNY Graduate Center…”

    Lookatchu dropping-popping names and accomplishments! Congrats, Alex! Youse movin’ on UP.

  • Africameleon

    Thank you for your post, it was very informative! This made me think about the issue of police encounters with the mentally ill and how they often end in preventable deaths.
    Police and citizen volunteers should to take this course and accompany police on their runs, that would be a game changer. Some (but very few) precincts already have “mental health officers” who accompany (or meet the police) at the residence on mental health (51/50) calls. If more people took courses like this and volunteered with police stations that don’t have funding in this area this may change the ways police engage with the mentally ill. Just a thought, a hopeful one.

    • Val

      Or maybe all police should be required to become certified in mental health first aid.

      • LMNOP

        It could be part of some kind of comprehensive training program.

      • Africameleon

        My support leans more toward the “public safety” end rather than the “policing” end of law enforcement (because of it’s history antagonizing the black community and slavery roots). I don’t think police should be required to be certified because they are already multi-tasking in a way. I think other entities like EMT and mental health professionals should also be apart of police visits. This may build a level of accountability between the different levels of public safety. Plus the inclusion of mental health trained people as apart of police rounds may even create more jobs for those who solely focus on assisting the mentally ill. And hopefully more black and brown people will get trained to help in their communities in particular. Many times mental health officials are contacted after the fact or after someone has already been killed by the police. Sometimes they’re not even contacted at all.

        • LMNOP

          I think the idea of other first responders who are specifically trained in mental health is a great idea, but since there are situations where police are going to show up alone, I think it’s important for them to have a very basic understanding of mental health.

          They should learn the kinds of behaviors and signs that indicate a mental health crisis and techniques to non-violently deescalate a situation until they can get a person to a mental health professional.

          There is clearly a need for training, but I think a huge part of all police violence is the lack of accountability. Police can kill an unarmed person experiencing a mental health crisis with no consequences, so they keep doing it.

        • I like the idea, but I have to disagree on police on not also getting some modicum of training. There are mentally ill people who’ve literally been murdered by cops while asleep. A sistah who openly dealt with bipolar disorder – Debra Shirley – was also killed by police during an incident. They knew beforehand that she was struggling with that disorder. People like me who have seizures -complex partial, so they’re not easily recognizable and mimic normal behavior – have also been shot and killed while having them They have a responsibility they need to uphold.

          • Africameleon

            I think everyone agrees that the police should receive some mental health aid training. But I don’t think that they should be the experts on the scene. Again, I think including more people on mental health police calls would lend some sort of accountability instead of just relying on police – who as you have stated kill people all to often without repercussions. This has failed over and over again. Further, whether volunteer aids or professional mental health aids and advocates, they should show up with the regardless.

  • Megan Hansen

    This is awesome! I’m seeing more people talking about mental health and seeking out mental health first aid classes (even if they don’t know they exist), across my various and varied communities. Talking about such training in VSB is helpful as I share info with others. Thank you, and keep up the great work!

  • IDontKnowAnyMore

    This is truly inspiring. This made me think of my best friend and years ago when she was in her truly low spot. She needed someone to talk to her like a human that was in pain. Her family is super religious and didn’t get it. Thankfully, she’s better, but this reminded me of how she and others don’t have qualified people by their sides when life becomes too much.

    • They have pastors who are trained in counseling though. I’m surprised they didn’t seek out that option. Meet people where they’re at, ya know?

      • IDontKnowAnyMore

        Yea, not for my friend and her family. That’s a different story

  • I’m glad that this is happening. One thing though; we need to dispel the myth that suppressing our feelings and status are primarily “Hotep” things. A lot of people in our community would rather try to mask these problems, solve them through prayer, and/or “pulling your britches up” than confronting them honestly and seeking help. Not to mention we need police trained as well because too many believe pulling a trigger is the solution to handling mentally ill and special needs people. A lot of this stuff is systemic. That said, given how classist and racist much of the academia is when it comes to mental health – I’ve seen and experienced horror stories myself – we definitely need more people like you, because too many of them allow their shiny degrees and “prestige” to cloud how they approach the mentally ill. They see us as trophies rather than human beings.

    • For so many, mental health assistance is something for White people, particularly White women with money. We all can have mental health issues, but it expresses it in different ways. After reading Black Pain by Terrie Williams, a lot of stuff suddenly made sense. A lot of the issues we have with food, shopping and $ex are subtle ways of masking our pain.

      • I remember an old poem I read once while studying at my alma mater called “We wear the Mask”. It’s often what I think about when it comes to this issue.

      • lunanoire

        So true! I keep referring to mental health care as it is addressed in the USA is reserved for the characters of indie movies and the people who identify with them — white, white collar and middle class or wealthier. Even the people bumbling through life have a guest room to sleep in or a relative to hook them up with a job, rather than being on the street.

        • Don’t I know that. I don’t necessarily think it’s the fault of the mental health professionals. You can’t treat what doesn’t show up at your door. That said, few people of all backgrounds make the connection between the homeless on the street and that White collar chick that is couch surfing with friends. What is worse is that people with mental illness are more likely to be poor, if only because it’s hard to hold down a job if you can barely function.

  • King Beauregard

    Can I share something I have learned? People who cut, are not self-destructive. They are dealing with stress / panic that is out of control, and cutting is trading that out-of-control terror for a level of pain that is 1) manageable and 2) under their direct control. It is effective in tricking the brain into focusing on something else.

    Stressed-out pets sometimes rip the fur out of their own skin; same thing.

    • LMNOP

      Hurting yourself is self-destructive though, even if it’s not an attempt to kill yourself. It’s self destructive in the way that drinking too much is.

      • King Beauregard

        True story: before I posted that, I ran it past a cutter because I wanted to make sure I got it right. She advised me to add the “not necessarily anyway” phrase because cutting and self-destructiveness are independent variables.

        Cutting is a coping strategy, if an imperfect one, and on its own it is often done with safety in mind (even the use of antiseptics and bandages afterwards).

        Self-destructiveness is another thing altogether: the willingness / desire to cause one’s self lasting harm.

        I believe it’s utterly vital to draw a firm distinction between the two, because if you get it wrong, you’ll respond to the cutter in ways that just make their lives much much worse. If you discover someone’s a cutter, the impulse to call an ambulance and put them on suicide watch is likely to magnify their stress by a factor of ten, with hilarious results. A far better approach would be to say to them, “I bet you’re going through more sheer sht than any single human being should”, and help them vent some stress.

        Here is an example of a preachy TV show getting it utterly wrong:

        So in summary, the dad’s repeated response to the daughter cutting is to pull up stakes and move to a new town out of … shame, I guess. Which in no way is likely to make the underlying issues of guilt and uncertainty even worse. If this show weren’t so goddamn preachy, the allegedly good and decent Christian dad would make sure the cutter knew she was genuinely accepted as is, like Fred Rogers was always good at doing.

        • King Beauregard

          Also, not real important to the discussion at hand, but here’s another “7th Heaven” clip (the neighbor girl is in a gang!) and a lot of good commentary:

        • LMNOP

          Okay, I see what you’re saying. I used to cut myself and we are at the time of year where I think “it sure would be nice if I could wear shorts or a bathing suit” and every year I kind of stop and think about what a destructive thing that was to do to myself.

          But I do agree that people have a tendency to react more melodramatically than is necessary or helpful. Which I guess is really where the lasting damage comes from for me. The scars don’t hurt, I just don’t want people to see them.

          • King Beauregard

            I can get that. Ima smack myself for saying this in about a minute, but: everyone has their emotional scars, it’s just that yours left a visible mark.

            And, I like to hope your life has become manageable between then and now.

            • LMNOP

              Thanks. This was like 15 years ago, and my life has gotten much better since then.

          • Kat

            Wear’em…I have friends who cut and I’m like so what, your scars are visible. Lot of folks walking around here bleeding from the inside out with a smile on their face. Celebrate you and your “coming over”.

          • miss t-lee

            Wear your suit, bew.

    • In my experience, if someone is at the cutting stage, whatever it is that they’re going through, you know it’s REAL. They might not necessarily be suicidal, but they’re past the point where a few therapy sessions and some SSRIs would help. At that point, you want to keep them from acting out at minimum, and get them to the pros if possible. Also, trying to rationalize with someone in that mindstate is a dangerous situation.

      • King Beauregard

        To be sure, if someone is cutting, they’re going through something that is very real. That may or may not mean self-destructive tendencies, but at a minimum they’re in an unenviable place.

        I know a number of long-term cutters, and they all agree that the cutting (for them) is not about causing themselves harm but about pulling themselves out of stress and panic and fear. They do it because it provides relief from a much bigger problem. So is their experience typical for cutters? I can’t really say, but I do know that confusing cutting with half-hearted suicide among my informal sample just makes their lives more hellish — relatives panic and treat them like they’re broken, without exploring the stressors that make cutting a welcome distraction.

        Which is why I posted at all: I think people read cutting entirely wrong, and as long as they’re seeing it as self-harm as opposed to the (very crude) therapeutic measure it sometimes / often / usually is, well-meaning people are going to make things worse for the cutter.

  • misskorilyn

    My last job required all employees to take mental health first aid, and it has been so helpful. It’s a lot of information, but I’ve used it so many times. I’m glad its being offered in more locations. Thanks for sharing this!

    • siante

      This is amazing. I would love to work in a school like this.

      • LMNOP

        Me too.

    • IDontKnowAnyMore

      Great article indeed. I love that schools are taking a new look/approach to discipline. It’s not wise to just expel or suspend someone.

    • AKA The Sauce

      Never understood the lyrics to this song. “cash yo checks and come on”….what we gone do….run errands? It’s the first of the month….RENT IS DUE!!! Maybe the all lived at home…only logical answer.

      • The check cashing place be poppin. People getting money orders to pay their bills, getting cash and hitting the liq and getting 20’s for their friendly local weed man. It is quite the ordeal.

      • It’s a subtle reference to hustling. The largest volume of sales happen when welfare, disability and other government checks comes through. These people would cash their checks and get some product. As a result, it would be a busy, and lucrative, day for drug dealers and other purveyors of vice. Think of the liquor store and lottery tickets.

        The hook, therefore, is a marketing plea. They want that drug money.

    • IDontKnowAnyMore

      It’s the first of the month and I’m getting my hair cut today!

    • I’m going to get my stamps make sure nobody snatches my check.

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