KHYNNA KUPRIAN

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A program designed to teach mental health support and recognition will reach southern Vermont for the first time next week.

"Mental Health First Aid," offered by United Counseling Services, aims to improve mental health literacy among the community by educating people about how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness.

The eight-hour class will be geared toward first responders and those who work in human services, although all are welcome. It will be held Tuesday, Oct. 1, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"It’s not about being a therapist, it’s about learning to recognize the signs of mental illness," said Dora Cecchini, mental health clinician with UCS.

The course will be taught by Cecchini, who helped introduce the program to Bennington County.

"We will be learning about symptoms of depression, anxiety, non-suicidal self-harm and suicidal tendencies," Cecchini said. "The key is to teach people to not be afraid, but to better understand how to respond in a crisis."

Based on a five-step action plan (ALGEE), the day will include learning how to assess for risk, listen non-judgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help and encourage self-help.

"We hope to be able to reach as many as 80 people over the course of this training," said Barbara Dooling, community relations specialist at UCS and an organizer of the training program being offered in Bennington.

Although knowing when to call 911 is important, the program will focus on the steps to take when calling emergency services may not be necessary; for example, when someone is having a panic attack, according to Cecchini.

"The symptoms for panic attacks can easily be confused with symptoms of a heart attack," said Cecchini. "But if the person has experienced panic attacks before and knows they are having one, you may be able to help them by calling a person they trust, or talking them through it."

The Mental Health First Aid curriculum originated at the University of Melbourne in Australia and has been taught in six other countries to date, including China, Scotland, England, Canada, Finland and Singapore.

It was first introduced in the U.S. in 2008, by the National Council for Behavioral Healthcare.

Future courses will be offered Nov. 4 and March 3. For more information, visit www.ucsvt.org; call 802-442-5491.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.