The Potential of Mental Health First Aid

JUL. 06, 2018

By Meredith Peffley


Despite what you may have been told, mental illness is treatable. But it can’t be done alone. Collaboration among all types of stakeholders, including the community, is imperative. From hospitals and housing agencies to the justice system, care providers and beyond—if we want to increase mental health awareness, break stigma and help those struggling access treatment, whole community engagement is critical. 

I live in North Carolina, where more than 500,000 people receive mental health care each year. And as a community engagement specialist for Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, I have witnessed firsthand how empowered communities can significantly help those with mental illness or those in a mental health crisis.

Mobilizing community service organizations, such as faith-based organizations, social service agencies and food pantries, is key to helping individuals find and receive the unique mental health services and assistance they need. These organizations can also activate other community stakeholders, such as law enforcement, school systems and emergency medical services, to build the positive support system that’s so essential for mental health care.

To build this kind of empowered community united around mental health care, we must first effectively educate organizations to better address mental health issues. One program in particular that helps do this is called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). I teach this eight-hour course in my area and it has helped North Carolina’s community organizations immensely.

The Impact of Community Care 

In MHFA classes, people get a better understanding of how to recognize and offer initial aid to someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis (or are in an escalating panic situation). Attendees are shown how to ask if a person is distressed, and how to intervene on their behalf. Instructors explain that attendees should react to their instincts if they think something is wrong: You do not have to be a doctor or specialist to help people get the mental health care they need.

That being said, MHFA courses also spell out a clear, five-step action plan to help individuals in crisis connect with the right professionals and peers. The course also covers any community resources available, as access to care is a crucial piece of the puzzle. All the training in the world will have little impact if the person in crisis never accesses mental health care.

In addition to preparing individuals to address mental illness, programs like MHFA can also deepen the integration of care among various community agencies that serve people with mental illness. In North Carolina, for example, several agencies have added MHFA courses to their new-hire curriculum, making it part of the skillset needed for the job. Some examples include: 

  • The Chapel Hill Police Department– includes MHFA as part of basic law enforcement training that takes place before any new recruit goes into the field
  • UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill– trains volunteers as part of a program designed to support individuals with mental illness who are waiting for treatment in the emergency department
  • Alamance Community College– integrated MHFA as an added training to their detention certification course for people training to become a detention officer.

Programs like MHFA that provide direct, in-person training and engagement are the first step in strengthening community support networks for everyone, but especially for those with mental illness. This type of support network provides the best chance to avert mental health crises and connect those in need to key resources, opening the door for them to become thriving members of society.

By adopting these kinds of programs and actively partnering with community stakeholders, we can change policies, procedures and mindsets. We can unify neighborhoods, break stigma and make an impact—one community at a time.


Meredith Peffley is a Community Relations Specialist at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. She was the Women’s Resource Center in Alamance County as the Director of Development and Community Relations. Meredith obtained her bachelor’s degree in Finance and Management from Defiance College followed by a Masters of Public Administration degree from George Washington University. She is also a certified trainer for Mental Health First Aid (adult, youth, veteran and law enforcement), QPR, a suicide prevention training, and is a certified trainer for a GAINS Center’s curriculum “How Being Trauma-Informed Improves Criminal Justice System Responses.” She has trained more than 5,000 community members on Behavioral Health related topics. 


We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.


JUL, 18, 2018 09:58:42 PM
Hello Bsb,

I have the exact situation in Naples Florida and no help. My 24 year old son has been Baker Acted 15 times only to get him stable and then released... he is so imbalanced and chooses now to be homeless because he has no trust in the center and doctor he sees. Of course, he shows up on my my door step every day for food and shelter, and showers from time to time. The doctors don’t seem to help... there’s no long term treatment centers other than state hostoiyal that is a step above prison and under staff! There’s no such word as funding or housing for him if he would even stay at one because he feels watched...

He has a sweet heart and is non violent to the core! A state Hosptial would only expose him to mentally ill criminals.

It really is a shame that there’s nothing a mother can do - I am not wealthy to the point of shelling out 10k a month for a decent place he could go for treatment...

I fear my beautiful boy will soon be taken advantage of or worse yet take his own life...

Help anyone


JUL, 14, 2018 05:19:13 PM
Dear bsb: I am so sorry for your loss. I think the only way to make that happen is for those of us in the US who care about mental health treatment to be involved in politics. We currently have a Republican party that has tried over and over again to slash funding for all kinds of scientific research, including for mental health. They simply don't respect science! (Look at how many of them don't "believe in" climate change!) We need to get different people in office who recognize that not caring for those who are sick is harmful to our society.

JUL, 10, 2018 12:03:28 PM
Jesse Ramsey
I am an attender at a bi-polar, depression group sponsored by NAMI in new Orleans La. I would like to know how I can be an advocate for mental illness issues. I have been diagnosed Bi-Polar and I fight stigma everyday. I would like to help change peoples perspective of mental illness. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

JUL, 10, 2018 10:25:20 AM
Michele Callaghan
Thank you for this important and clear article. Would you be willing to share your MFA course with our small but growing community in the UP of Michigan. We have a Building Community Resilience Committee that would be very interested in moving this idea forward with the legal and medical community in our town.

JUL, 06, 2018 10:05:54 PM
Please stop saying that it is treatable when there isn't any infrastructure. I lost my son to suicide last year. When he first told me he was suicidal he was 18 years old. He put his trust in me to get him help. The doctors at his college only gave him enough medication to get him through for 10 days because of their classification. When I brought him home I called around to get him into a psychiatrist to get his prescription refilled and to begin the journey at home to find out what could be wrong. I was told by every doctor that their first avaialble appointment was in 6 weeks, that was even after me telling them that he was suicidal. I could not get any help anywhere until the next day when he actually did attempt suicide then suddenly a doctor was available and now he was in a psychiatric hospital for a week and that began a journey of another attempt and then finally a third that was successful after spending 40,000 over a 3 month period trying to get him stabilized and then diagnosed. This was not a drug addicted person. This was a very kind and gentle soul that had a true brain disease. He was a straight A student with good friends and a good family and wanted to feel better and couldn't get the help that he needed. I tried to get him help and get it treated. The infrastructure and knowledge is NOT there. We need a CURE for brain diseases. If we put as much emphasis on curing brain diseases as we do seatbelts, breast cancer and drunk driving I may still have my son and the world may still have a beautiful person!

Submit to the NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.

Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.