Archdiocese of Baltimore helps provide mental health first aid training


In her role as Director of Community Affairs for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Yvonne Wenger constantly hears from parish office managers about how mental health affects their communities.

A parish office official told Wenger he spoke with a parishioner whose son died by suicide.

“Is there anything more I could have done to be more supportive?” asked the parishioner.

Another office manager shared a moment when she received a call from a desperate mother asking for help for a child suffering from drug addiction and expressing suicidal thoughts.

Miquel Grado smiles during the Archdiocese of Baltimore Mental Health First Aid training session on May 14, 2022 at Christ the King in Glen Burnie. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

Wenger said church office managers feel like the first line of defense and don’t always know what to say or do when they receive calls from people in crisis.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, as part of the Mental Wellness Initiative launched by Archbishop William E. Lori, has been providing mental health first aid training to parishioners across the Archdiocese for the past several months. . Nearly 1,000 people have already been certified under the program, which helps equip office managers and other parish workers with some basic skills to deal with signs of mental illness, self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction and other challenges.

The training lasts approximately eight hours, offering a three-year certification for those who complete it.

“One woman was practically in tears when she learned that this training was available to her so she could be prepared when those calls came in,” Wenger said.

Mary Ellen Russell, former archdiocesan director of community affairs, helped launch the mental health initiative. After Russell’s retirement, Wenger expanded his work. In addition to mental health first aid training, the Archdiocese provides a comprehensive page on its website with mental health resources for individuals, parishes and institutions.

Wenger said the demand for the Archdiocese’s free mental health first aid training was overwhelming. Many courses, offered in English and Spanish online and in person at parishes across the archdiocese, are filling up immediately, with many people even being put on the waiting list.

The training sessions focus on two groups: adults and young people. The purpose of the trainings is to teach ordinary people how to react and assess a situation when someone is in crisis. The training model is a similar model to the CPR certification.

Those certified in mental health first aid are not qualified to diagnose, counsel or directly treat a person in crisis, but are trained to approach a person in crisis with a meaningful conversation.

An important part of mental health first aid training is to break down the stigma around mental health, creating better awareness within the church and community.

“My parents’ generation was like, ‘we don’t talk about it (mental health),'” said Heather Huppmann, a certified adult and youth mental health first aid instructor and parishioner at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott. City.

If someone was injured on the job, good Catholics would usually get together and bring pots to the person’s home, she noted. But if a person has a panic attack, no one knows how to talk about it.

“In mental health first aid, we train to become uncomfortable. In fact, we ask the whole room to say, “Are you thinking about suicide? Some people have never heard these words before, but we need to ask people to be able to show their support, she added.

Certified Coach Hellivi Flores leads an Archdiocese of Baltimore Mental Health First Aid training session on May 14, 2022 at Christ the King in Glen Burnie. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park is among the parishes that have offered in-person training to parishioners. Two monitors and 30 participants registered for training on April 23 and 24 at the parish.

Anne Arundel County Parish offers two mental health ministries, the Mental Health Companions, in which individuals share their direct or indirect experiences with mental illness, and the St. Dymphna Prayer Group, where individuals come together to pray to the patron saint of mental illness.

Cathy Sitzwohl, Mental Health Companions coordinator and parishioner of St. John’s in Severna Park, attended the April 23 training and said sometimes people ask her a question about her well-being and she doesn’t know what to answer.

“Twenty-eight years ago, when I was diagnosed (with bipolar disorder), I forbade my mother from telling friends about it,” she said. “I thought if anyone knew something it would shut me up so I tried to hide it even more.”

She said sharing her experiences with mental health companions made her stronger and more comfortable with who she was.

“Mental health first aid is proof that God brings good out of bad situations,” she added.

“I myself suffered from depression and members of my family had suicidal thoughts,” said Bradley Fish, a parishioner at St. Alphonse Ligouri National Shrine in Baltimore, who attended the April 23 training.

He said comments such as “get back on it”, “be a man” and “grow up” are counterproductive.

“Mental illness is a life-threatening condition, so we need to treat it like we do physical illnesses,” he noted. “I hope to draw from this training a better ability to listen and be receptive to people suffering from mental illness.

Participants came from different backgrounds and parishes across the Archdiocese. Some were concerned about depression, substance abuse, anxiety, loss of a loved one, and suicide involving themselves, a family member, or their community.

Hillevi Flores, a parishioner of St. Rose of Lima in Brooklyn and St. Athanasius in Baltimore, conducts most Spanish-language training throughout the archdiocese as a Certified Adult and Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor, including training in Spanish at St. John the Evangelist in Columbia on May 14.

She said the Hispanic community is in dire need of training sessions as many are immigrants who come with traumatic experiences from their home country and experience isolation from their families and culture there.

Not only parishes receive training, but also Catholic schools. Up to 200 teachers, principals and school counselors across the Archdiocese are receiving training in youth mental health first aid over the summer.

For more information or to register for Mental Health First Aid training, click here.

For mental wellness resources, click here.

Email Priscila González de Doran at [email protected]

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