Learning mental health first aid in Hurlock

By Debra R. Messick Dorchester Banner
Posted 8/11/22

Ten caring souls hoping to make a difference helping others recently made a pilgrimage to Hurlock's United Methodist Church, but it wasn't a Sunday.

On a recent Saturday, they attended a Mental …

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Learning mental health first aid in Hurlock


Ten caring souls hoping to make a difference helping others recently made a pilgrimage to Hurlock's United Methodist Church, but it wasn't a Sunday.

On a recent Saturday, they attended a Mental Health First Aid Workshop, hosted by the church and offered through the University of Maryland Extension Service's Mental Health and Well-Being Outreach Programming, under the umbrella of ROTA, Rural Opioid Technical Assistance.

The workshop was led by Elizabeth Ann Williams, trainer/educator for the University of Maryland Extension – ROTA, assisted by Hurlock UM pastor, the Rev. Joan Walsh, both of whom took the training several years ago.

For Rev. Walsh, the program's goals encompass what she sees as the faith-based pastoral mission of caring for those needing aid.

"We already help with feeding and clothing people. But sometimes people's needs go beyond those manifested physically," she said.

Learning to "become a noticer" of when someone's behavior shows a pattern of changing is important, Walsh noted. So, too, are recognizing the telltale signs indicating mental illness and understanding how to open a compassionate, non-judgmental dialogue, she said.

UMC Peninsula Delaware District Superintendent Elner Davis Jr., who has also taken the program, agreed.

A strong believer that pastoring extends beyond the walls of a church, Mr. Davis sees a great need for mental health awareness throughout the community at large right now. Pastors can be a great asset, especially in the African American community, he said, where the subject has traditionally been stifled, regarded as taboo.

A career police officer in Salisbury and currently councilman for Easton's 4th Ward, Mr. Davis was instrumental in securing grant funding bringing the workshop to Hurlock UMC.

For Mr. Davis, the training is a valuable way to broaden the overall perspective on mental health, and to increase awareness of the resources available to help.

Adapted from a program created in Australia in 2001 by nurse Betty Kitchener and mental health literacy professor Anthony Jorm, the class is designed for the average adult requiring no specialized background. In the U.S., it's been taken by a wide variety of people, from former First Lady Michelle Obama to first responders, teachers and police officers.

According to UME State Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist Alexander E. Chan, "Anyone over the age of 18 can sign up with no special training required in advance. The training is intended for the general public, because, you never know," he said. The Hurlock program was offered free of charge to those attending.

"The core of the training teaches the ALGEE action plan, which is an acronym standing for Approach, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage professional help, and Encourage self-help. Each step is covered in detail with opportunities for practice," Mr. Chan added.

Participants take a two-hour, self-paced online session prior to the five-hour workshop. They receive several workbooks to retain for ongoing use. Those who are certified are also given a plush koala bear as a personal keepsake.

Both Ms. Williams and Rev. Walsh spoke to the stress people were still experiencing as a result of the COVID pandemic. Youngsters are still experiencing a lot of internal pain, Williams said, while Walsh pointed to the ongoing isolation of seniors, making them especially vulnerable.

"The overall goal of the program is to build a more supportive community of individuals who are prepared to deal with mental health issues. As the number of supportive individuals in a community increases, stigma is reduced, and access to care increases,” Mr. Chan said. “People are more likely to seek professional help if someone close to them suggests it, and this program equips more people with the skills to be able to have that conversation with their loved ones (and strangers) successfully."

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