Blair trains for mental health first aid

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County leaders are engaged in an aggressive effort to train area residents in mental health first aid.

Instructor Lynette Martinez last week told a class of county employees that the course is designed to help people know what to do and say when facing someone developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis.

“You’ll be able to assist them in their time of need until professional help arrives,” she said.

The skills can be used on the job, within a family, almost anywhere, Blair County Mental Health Director James Hudack said.

That’s one reason Hudack is working with instructors like Martinez to make the course, Mental Health First Aid USA, available not only to county employees but also to local agencies and businesses. In March, plans call for setting up classes for the public at the Altoona Area Public Library.

The course previously was offered for mental health crisis workers and police, parole and probation officers.

“We’re getting more and more contacts for these classes,” Hudack said.

Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling was a member of the class that Martinez and fellow instructor Christopher Cohn began last week at the courthouse and which will continue in two more sessions.

“There’s so much good information being offered here that can be put to use personally and professionally,” Meling said. “And in light of the mass shootings that have been in the news, people have been asking what they can do. We’ll, here’s something: We can take this class.”

Mental Health First Aid USA is a 12-hour course managed, operated and disseminated by three national authorities: the National Council for Community Behavior Healthcare, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Health.

About 80,000 people nationwide have completed the training, according to the National Council, which introduced an additional class this month focused on helping those between 12 and 25 years old.

No one knows what, if anything, could have changed the course of events of a tragedy such as the December mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, but public education can only be helpful, National Council President and Chief Executive Officer Linda Rosenberg said.

During the class, Martinez and Cohn defined mental disorders as illnesses that affect a person’s thinking, emotional state and behavior, something shared by more than 26 percent of the population based on a study described in the course manual.

Because such conditions can disrupt the ability to work, carry out daily activities and engage in satisfying relations, students were advised to follow a checklist, with the acronym ALGEE: Assess for risk of suicide or harm, Listen non-judgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help and Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Cohn, who has been a police officer for 36 years, said he has used those strategies and seem them work.

“A lot of time, what people want is help,” Cohn said.

Christine Weaver, an employee in the register/ recorder’s office, said she was pleased with what she learned in the first class.

“I signed up because I wanted to know: How do I react when there’s a situation?” Weaver said.

Annette Merritts, who works in the court administrator’s staff, said she, too, was learning a lot.

“There are people who need us to listen to them,” Merritts said.

For more information on Mental Health First Aid USA, visit

Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.