A Koala Changed My Life (and Could Change Yours, Too)

Note: The following post discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs 24/7 immediate support, call 1-844-493-TALK (8255), text TALK to 38255 or visit the Walk-In Center at 4353 E. Colfax Ave. in Denver. For more information and additional locations: coloradocrisisservices.org. For support outside Colorado, call 988.

When I was 17, I wanted to die by suicide. I was struggling with a host of challenges in my life, and without the support I received from therapy, family, friends and loved ones, I might have become one of the 47,000 people who die by suicide in the United States every year. Ten years later (and no longer suicidal), I took a mandatory training for work called “Mental Health First Aid” and it changed my life.

Cute Mascot, Better Program

Nationwide, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people aged 10 to 24. In Colorado, it’s number one. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is trying to change that. With over 75,000 “MHFA-ers” in Colorado, millions trained worldwide, and program presence in over 25 countries, Mental Health First Aid has expanded well beyond its beginnings in Australia in 2000 (thus, the koala mascot).

The goal is simple: in an eight-hour course, teach participants to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and crises, give them an action plan to implement and provide them with resources to share with others who may need them. Through this training, MHFA-ers are equipped to notice when someone may need help, know what to say and get them connected to the professionals, self-help or other services necessary to receive support.

I took the class as part of my required onboarding trainings when I first began working at WellPower (formerly Mental Health Center of Denver) in 2017. Within a week of receiving the training, a friend posted on social media expressing thoughts of severe depression and suicidality. Before Mental Health First Aid, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say. After becoming certified, I felt confident in the action plan and I reached out.

“Are You Thinking of Killing Yourself?”

It’s an uncomfortable question to ask. It can also be the difference between someone feeling alone with their feelings of hopelessness and suicidality, and feeling like someone cares enough to see their struggle.

Mental Health First Aiders are trained to ask that question directly, clearly and compassionately. Research has proven that asking someone experiencing thoughts of suicide directly if they’re thinking of killing themselves actually reduces the chances that they’ll attempt suicide, because it can lower their anxiety level and act as a deterrent. Expressing the question also opens the pathway for connection and the person experiencing suicidal thoughts to feel less lonely and isolated.

That part of the training is always met with some nervous laughter and a lot of deep emotions. It’s also the part of the training that inspired me to become a MHFA instructor. Since August 2019, I’ve instructed in-person and online, to hundreds of participants. Every time I finish a class, I feel the same way – relieved that there are more people out there prepared to have de-stigmatizing conversations about mental health and ready to notice signs and symptoms.

When I asked my friend directly if they were thinking of killing themselves, we were able to have an honest conversation about their feelings and I was able to assess whether they were in an immediate crisis (that might have required emergency services) or not. I’m happy to say that this friend is alive and well today.

This Needs To Be everywhere – In Every Workplace and Every School

At WellPower, we’re working on that. We were recently awarded a generous grant from UnitedHealthcare to provide Mental Health First Aid training to all Denver Public Schools (DPS) – both teachers and teens. Our goal is to reach 2,000 teens and 1,200 teachers in 2023, because we know how effective this program is.

“You can take all the different types of certifications and tests you want to bulk up your resume, but you’re going to be dealing with people and their mental health in all facets of your life,” said WellPower’s Mental Health First Aid coordinator Jasmine Breeden. “This is the kind of class that transcends the boundaries between home, school and work– you can use all of the skills you learn in Mental Health First Aid with all of the people in your life, regardless of your relationship with them.” 

Jasmine, who recently won the 2023 Mental Health First Aid Coordinator of the Year award from the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, has been working tirelessly to bring classes to DPS and other parts of the community.

“When I first took the class, I was in a clinical role, so I already had training to know how to help people experiencing mental health challenges,” she said. “This class is different, though. It’s an introduction of skills for what to do when someone is having a crisis, as well as how to notice those earlier signs and symptoms.”

Sign Up for a Class – You Never Know When You’ll Need It

We all have mental health, and we never know when we may need someone who’s trained and certified in Mental Health First Aid to help connect us to support and resources. Becoming a “MHFA-er” can be the difference in saving someone’s life, or even just letting someone experiencing a mental health challenge know that they’re not alone. To sign up for a community class or book a private one for your group, please visit www.wellpower.org/mental-health-first-aid or email Mentalhealthfirstaid@wellpower.org