US President Obama Endorses MHFA

This article was first published on the MHFA Blog and has been reproduced here with permission.

On January 16th 2013, President Barack Obama announced his “Now Is the Time” plan, which put forward a new series of executive actions and legislative proposals to help curb gun violence. The plan includes several mental health proposals focused on recognising and treating mental health issues in children and youth.

As part of the plan, Obama recommends Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training to help teachers, staff and other adults interacting with young people to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and to assist them with finding appropriate professional treatment.

Obama’s plan includes four key recommendations:

  1. Closing background check loopholes to keep guns out of dangerous hands;
  2. Banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and taking other common-sense steps to reduce gun violence;
  3. Making schools safer; and
  4. Increasing access to mental health services.

Whilst acknowledging that the majority of people with a mental illness are not violent, point 4 – increasing access to mental health services – discusses the need for early identification of mental health issues, to help individuals get appropriate treatment before violent situations arise. Specifically, it is recommended that teachers and other adults who interact with young people be trained in MHFA:

President Barack Obama signs a series of executive orders about the administration’s new gun law proposals (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images, courtesy of Kaiser Health News).

“Provide ‘Mental Health First Aid’ training for teachers: Project AWARE includes $15 million for training for teachers and other adults who interact with youth to detect and respond to mental illness in children and young adults, including how to encourage adolescents and families experiencing these problems to seek treatment.”

Previously, in June 2012, the Mental Health First Aid Higher Education Act 2012, was submitted to US Congress. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health (part of the coordinating body of Mental Health First Aid USA), several US Representatives sent a letter to Vice President Biden on January 9, 2013, urging the US task force on gun violence to support this Act.

This Act is part of the plan to improve access to and quality of mental health services provided across the United States. If passed, MHFA training would be provided to teachers, students, and campus staff (e.g., counselling personnel, dormitory resident advisors, and coaches and other athletic department staff) in communities nationwide through a 5-year demonstration program to fund MHFA training at 10 institutions of higher education. The ultimate aim is to improve student mental health. In a press release on January 16 2013, Linda Rosenberg, President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, stated that Representatives Ron Barber and Senator Mark Begich will shortly reintroduce this Mental Health First Aid legislation in Congress to implement the President’s recommendations.

The Canadian Government is also championing MHFA across a broad range or sectors. In fact, the coordinating body of MHFA Canada is the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), a national non-profit organisation created by the Canadian Government in 2007 to govern issues relating to mental health and mental illness.

The first mental health strategy for Canada, “Changing Directions, Changing Lives: The Mental Health Strategy for Canada” was published in May 2012 to help address the gaps in Canada’s mental health system. This strategy called for an increase in the capacity of families, schools and workplaces to promote good mental health, reduce stigma and prevent mental illness and suicide wherever possible. MHFA training is mentioned under this priority, and is indirectly recommended for “front line service providers in health care, education and justice systems as well as for those providing emergency long-term care and social services”.

Over in England, in a Department of Health press release published in July 2012 the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Care Services Minister Paul Burstow urged employers in England to take action by undertaking three steps needed to improve their staff members’ mental health, one being to provide them with MHFA training.

Closer to home, MHFA has been mentioned in policy documents such as the Queensland Plan for Mental Health 2007-2017. Part of this plan is to “support activities which will build mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention capacity”, whereby one of the strategies is to “improve mental health literacy and access to Mental Health First Aid training for non-clinical workers in key government and non-government services”. In a four-year report on the progress of this initiative, published in October 2011, it was reported that Mental Health First Aid had so far been funded for 653 non-government and Department of Communities staff.

More recently, in October 2012, the Victorian Parliament in Australia acknowledged the importance of youth mental health and MHFA training for teachers in the Family and Community Development Committees “Inquiry into workforce participation by people with mental illness”. This inquiry recommends that MHFA be incorporated as part of teacher training, and states:

“Staff within schools requires Mental Health First Aid training to identify students at risk of disengaging from education because of mental illness.”

Earlier in July 2010, during the election campaign, the Australian Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard MP, committed the Australian Government to redouble its efforts to prevent the tragedy of suicide, making clear that mental health is an important part of a second term agenda and announcing a $274 million Taking Action to Tackle Suicide (TATS) package of which $6.1M was allocated for Mental Health First Aid training for front line community workers (i.e., financial and legal sectors, relationship counsellors, and healthcare workers). People working in these sectors interact with those who may be in financial, legal or relationship crisis where the risk of suicide is increased.

As part of the implementation of the Government’s 2010 TATS package, in 2012 the Australian Government Funding invited 6 selected mental health training organisations to apply to provide MHFA training for front line community workers. MHFA Australia was one of 3 successful applicants. Read more about what we plan to do with this funding here.

It is really encouraging to see MHFA being supported by Governments, mentioned in policy documents in Australia and overseas and associated lobbying efforts by partner organisations. It means we are one step closer to MHFA Australia’s ultimate goal – that MHFA training become mandatory for certain professions, just as is physical first aid.


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