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Clackamas County offers lessons on handling mental health crises

Innovative class will cover prevalence of mental illnesses and potential warning signs

For years, people around the country have attended local first aid classes centering on such topics as CPR, but Clackamas County is set to place a new class in the lineup. Beginning this fall, the county will offer a Mental Health First Aid class taught by certified mental health first aid instructors.

'It's a pretty incredible program because we have the only two people in the region who are trained, and they will be teaching the class,' said Aaron Abrams, a community relations specialist for Clackamas County.

The class is geared toward people in every capacity in the community, from law enforcement personnel to human resources professionals and to average citizens.

'This class is for anyone who interacts with another human being,' instructor Susie Schenk said.

Schenk is a crisis triage therapist for the Clackamas County Crisis Program and is a licensed professional counselor, as well as a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Teaching alongside Schenk is Karen Carlin, who is a care coordinator for the program.

'Twenty five years ago I started teaching CPR and first-aid when it was a lot less common, and just like that my dream is to develop a community of citizen responders because mental illness affects all of us whether we know it or not,' Carlin said.

Statistics show 1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues every year, including anything from depression to suicidal thoughts. The goal of this class is to teach people how to recognize the symptoms so that people can get the help they need.

'Statistically, the earlier someone recognizes a condition, the better the outcome. And when someone gets a recommendation from someone they know, they're more likely to get the help they need,' Carlin said.

The stigma surrounding mental illness often acts as a barrier to people participating in classes like these.

'It's one of those things people don't talk about,' Carlin said. 'And they're fearful about getting help, mostly because of ignorance. The treatment is effective and available, so people can either live to manage the condition or even prevent future episodes.'

The most common forms of mental illness are depression and anxiety, which can manifest in something as simple as workplace frustration. The goal of the class is to equip people throughout the community with the tools necessary to help friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances.

'The first person to recognize a mental health condition is the person next to you, so we just want to reach anybody and everybody,' Schenk said.

In addition to basic information about mental illnesses and how to recognize them, the class will touch on how to handle crisis situations, including a five-step action plan for connecting the person to professional care.

The first step for someone who may have a mental illness is to consult a primary care physician if a relationship already exists; otherwise, they can call the Clackamas County Mental Health Organization. The crisis line is also open 24 hours a day at 503-655-8585.

These classes are part of a larger movement within the county to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues includes the 'Open Doors, Open Minds' campaign taking place. For more information on the classes, call 503-655-8401.