Sandra Hopkins-Ouedraogo, Mental Health Awareness and Training coordinator at Riverhead...

Sandra Hopkins-Ouedraogo, Mental Health Awareness and Training coordinator at Riverhead Community Awareness Program Inc., leads an instructional planning class at the nonprofit, which has been awarded funding to address mental health in youths and adults. Credit: James Carbone

A Riverhead nonprofit will use a five-year, $625,000 federal grant recently awarded to the group to help train individuals and organizations in the town and surrounding East End communities on how to identify and understand signs of mental illness and substance abuse among youths and adults.

Riverhead Community Awareness Program Inc., or Riverhead CAP, was awarded a grant from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — to coordinate Mental Health First Aid for adults and youths. Trainees are taught how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

Sandra Hopkins-Ouedraogo, the nonprofit’s Mental Health Awareness and Training grant coordinator, told Newsday the nonprofit applied for the funding after seeing the mental health impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had. A December 2020 report from the Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel cited Suffolk County Police Department data showing that nonfatal overdoses and Narcan saves for individuals rose from 2019 to 2020. Mental health service providers countywide experienced more people seeking support due to the pandemic, the report added.

“There’s so much stigma around the discussion around mental health,” Hopkins-Ouedraogo said. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about it. But especially with the impact that the pandemic has had on everyone, this is a good tool to have to notice those signs and symptoms and to step in and help.”

OFFERING HELP

  • Riverhead CAP and its partners will provide specialized Mental Health First Aid training modules for veterans, public safety, fire/EMS personnel and individuals or organizations that work with older adults. Training is available in-person/on-site, virtually or in a blended course.
  • The grant will provide $125,000 per year for Riverhead CAP to coordinate adult and youth Mental Health First Aid Training for individuals and organizations in Riverhead and the surrounding communities.
  • Certified trainers from various organizations will teach trainees a five-step action plan: assessment of risk of suicide or harm; listening non-judgmentally; giving reassurance and information; encouraging appropriate professional help, and; encouraging self-help and other support strategies. Those trained would also learn how to use those skills in non-crisis situations. Training would take 8 hours, according to Riverhead CAP officials.

The nonprofit will partner with local schools and organizations such as the Family Service League, the Riverhead Central School District, the Southampton Youth Bureau, and the New York National Guard to train instructors in Mental Health First Aid. Those instructors will then provide that training to individuals and organizations at no cost over the next five years.

“It’s about getting as many people educated around Mental Health First Aid and to be able to help others as they’re learning,” Hopkins-Ouedraogo said.

The first adult training session will be at the Riverhead Police Department at the end of March.

“MHFA [mental health first aid] training will be another valuable tool to help us better serve the Riverhead community,” said Police Chief David Hegermiller.

Christine Tona, assistant superintendent for the school district, said the district is “very excited about this partnership.”

“We recognize that many students are in need of support,” Tona said, “and this strengthens the other initiatives that the district is implementing.”

Patricia Hartley-Ferrandino, director of clinical operations at Family Service League, said at least two of its staff will undergo the training, including one Spanish-speaking staff member.

“Mental Health First Aid training is really for anyone and everyone to identify a warning flag in another person and not just ignore it,” Hartley-Ferrandino said. “It teaches you to identify and ask a question so you can understand what is happening with that person and respond by saying in what way people need help and where it can be offered for them.”

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