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Nassau County begins mental health training for responders

Kathleen Foster, coordinator at the Nassau County Department

Kathleen Foster, coordinator at the Nassau County Department of Human Services Office for the Aging, speaks to members of administration at the Westbury Union Free School District during a mental health first aid training class in Garden City Monday, March 14, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Nassau County has begun to offer a nationally recognized mental health training program to emergency first responders and local schools as officials struggle with growing abuse of heroin and prescription drugs, and the increase in the number of mentally ill people responders are encountering.

The program, which started in November, seeks to connect addicts and people to appropriate treatment by teaching police and other responders to identify signs of mental illness.

In Suffolk, at least one county lawmaker has expressed interest in starting the program there.

“I think it’s really going to take off in light of the issues surrounding heroin in our county,” said Nassau County Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury), who proposed the idea to Nassau legislators in 2014.

“I saw a lack when it came to addressing mental health needs, especially among our youth,” Bynoe said. “Young people were being referred into systems — jail, foster care — but those systems aren’t always addressing their underlying issues. I believe we have to get to the root cause of what’s driving some to addiction and destructive behavior, and many times it’s a mental health issue.”

Earlier this month, the county’s 197 police recruits underwent the eight-hour training developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for addiction services.

Nassau plans to expand the training to 911 operators and other community groups, Bynoe said. A pilot program for teachers and administrators at the Westbury and Malverne school districts has been underway since last month, and the Jericho school district is scheduled for training in May.

Nassau police recruits previously received some mental health training, but there was no evidence of its effectiveness, Bynoe said. Advocates of the new program said the national curriculum has been studied and there are data supporting its effectiveness.

The new program teaches participants how to identify signs of mental health disorders and how to respond to distressed individuals. For example, participants are called upon to role-play so they can practice how to handle a suicidal student, or direct an addict to an appropriate treatment program.

Over the past decade, more than 500,000 people have been trained under the program nationwide, including 16,617 New Yorkers, according to the national council.

Bynoe worked last year with Nassau Legis. Francis X. Becker Jr. (R-Lynbrook), who has since retired, and Nassau Human Services Commissioner Lisa Murphy to implement the training sessions.

Murphy said three department employees received nearly 40 hours of training to be certified to instruct others in the national Mental Health First Aid curriculum.

Bynoe did not have an estimate of the cost but said it is nominal and primarily involves the time county employees use for training, and the expense of copying handouts.

Glenn Liebman, CEO of the nonprofit Mental Health Association in New York State, welcomed Nassau’s effort. He said New York has lagged behind other states, including California and Pennsylvania, in training public workers in the Mental Health First Aid curriculum since it was developed in 2001.

“We see it as a successful education tool,” Liebman said. “It doesn’t ask people to be clinicians, it makes it clear that your job as a mental health first aider is to help refer people to necessary services.”

In Suffolk, Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) said he plans to host training sessions in his district to examine the viability of a countywide effort. Cilmi said he took the course and hosted a training session for school district administrators last fall, at the suggestion of a mental health worker in his district.

“So often mental illness goes undiagnosed, and often times leads to substance abuse, whether it be alcohol, or worse, heroin,” Cilmi said. “By detecting those signs of mental illness at early onset, it could be incredibly important in helping prevent those issues from developing into a harmful addiction.”

The Mental Health First Aid Action Plan

The eight-hour course developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health teaches participants how to identify individuals with mental health disorders and how to connect them with help. The course focuses on a 5-step “action plan” that uses the acronym ALGEE.

- Assess for risk of suicide or harm.

- Listen nonjudgmentally.

- Give reassurance and information.

- Encourage appropriate professional help.

- Encourage self-help and other support strategies.


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