United Way of Northwest Vermont
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You’re not alone: Let’s talk about mental health and how to keep each other safe.

By Cari Kelley

Cari Kelly is a certified Mental Health First Aid and QPR Instructor and Workplace Donor Relations Manager for United Way of Northwest Vermont. She lives in Grand Isle and volunteers on several boards including Destination Imagination, the State Rehabilitation Council, Sail Beyond Cancer Vermont, and the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time for all of us to think about ways we can support each other while also checking in on our own mental health. Over the past year I’ve been thinking about this a lot through my experiences as a certified instructor of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and QPR, a suicide prevention training program.

If you take away nothing else from reading this commentary, please remember this: If you are struggling with your mental health and/or concerned about the mental health of someone you care about, you are not alone. And help is available.

I have been the primary support person for over 20 years of someone in my family who has struggled with suicidal ideation. I have sat in the Emergency Department for hours waiting to see what resources are available. I have helped my loved one navigate services, listened nonjudgmentally and offered reassurance. In moments of crisis when I was worried about their safety and didn’t know what more to do, I called 988 and asked for help.

I understand that supporting someone experiencing a mental health crisis can be scary and overwhelming. But I also understand that I am not alone and there are community resources and people ready to help. One of the most helpful tools I have used in my personal and professional life is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

MHFA is an evidence-based 8-hour public education program that teaches people how to recognize and support someone experiencing mental health and substance misuse challenges. I went through the training years ago and found it enormously helpful. Last year, with funding from United Way’s Mental Health Initiative, I became a certified MHFA instructor in hopes that I could help other people access support and feel less alone.

In the past year I have trained over 120 people in MHFA; I have provided trainings at workplaces who partner with United Way and to a wide variety of groups including the Medical Reserve Corps in Franklin County.

I am so grateful to be able to share tools like MHFA and to connect people to local resources and support available in our community. One of the most important things I have learned by taking and teaching MHFA is how important it is to pay attention to our own needs and practice self-care. I realized at some point that I needed to stop continuously pushing forward and take time to stop and think about what I need. Meditation and music have become critical in my life. We need to build in things for ourselves and make sure we attend to our own mental health. I am truly passionate about combatting the stigma associated with talking openly about mental health struggles. In addition to Mental Health First Aid, I am certified as an instructor of QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade, Refer, three steps anyone can learn to save a life from suicide. For some workplaces and individuals, QPR is a more accessible training because it can be administered in as little as 90 minutes.

Most recently, I became a certified instructor of Mental Health First Aid for Older Adults, which introduces participants to the unique risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in adults over the age of 65 and teaches individuals how to help an older adult in crisis. We hear a lot, rightly so, about the youth mental health crisis and it is real and urgent. At the same time, Vermont has an aging population and a lot of people in our community are worried about the mental health of their aging parents and relatives. Isolation, especially in rural areas, is a major mental health concern.

I will be leading a FREE series of Mental Health First Aid for Older Adults trainings in June sponsored by UVM Health Network and MVP Health Care. These trainings will be held in South Burlington, St. Albans, and South Hero; people can learn more and register at bit.ly/MHFAolderadults.

We have a tremendous opportunity in our community to keep each other safe. Let’s talk about mental health and how to support each other before a crisis happens. Early intervention is key to keeping those we support safe.