Demystifying Mental Illness One Class at a Time

May 17, 2019

Amy Gamble prepares to teach a Mental Health First Aid class.
Credit Corey Knollinger / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Most people are familiar with the idea of first aid — like what to do to when dealing with a cut or scrape — but not everyone knows what to do when their friend is showing signs of mental illness. There’s a class dedicated having a better mental health first aid response. One of these classes was recently held in the Northern Panhandle.  


In a classroom on the West Virginia Northern Community College Wheeling campus, Greater Wheeling National Alliance on Mental Illness executive director Amy Gamble recently gave a first aid class to residents and city officials.

The first aid tips don’t help with physical ailments, but mental.

A New Approach to First Aid

Mental health first aid is a concept started in 2001 in Australia that has been spreading through the U.S. for about a decade.

The program demonstrates that even something as seemingly insignificant as a regular greeting upon passing by can have a significant impact on people who are struggling with mental illness.

Wheeling Police hostage negotiator and mental health first aid instructor Bryan Hails recounts one of his first calls dealing with a schizophrenic man who had been off of his medication for a little while.

“First time I got called out was not successful," he recalled. "I watched a guy jump off of a fifth-floor balcony, and live. Then a couple years later I got called out for the same guy. In the time between the first incident and second incident after he got out of the hospital if I saw him, I made a point to just wave or say, ‘hey, how’s it going?’”

Hails explains that the little bit of rapport he was able to build in this way mattered a lot when he was called out again. At that point, legal paperwork called a “mental hygiene order” had already been filled out. It allows authorities to hospitalize someone against their free will if they are demonstratively a threat to themselves or others.

“I talked to him," Hails recounted. "I got him to come downstairs. I gave him my last cigarette. And then we walked up to the hospital, which was in walking distance.”

Demystifying Mental Illness

The backbone of the eight-hour course is A.L.G.E.E.:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm,
  • Listen nonjudgmentally,
  • Give reassurance and information,
  • Encourage appropriate professional help, 
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Before you can do any of that, you have to be able to identify mental illness.

Participants in Wheeling's Mental Health First Aid class draw what anxiety looks like to them.
Credit Corey Knollinger / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Class participants drew what they thought anxiety looked like. Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the country.

“His hair is all standing up, eyes are great big because he’s overwhelmed," course participant Carrie Bennett described her drawing. "Cheeks all the way down the neck are a little flushed, muscles are tense, his feet are moving all the time because he feels like he just has to get out of here, and he’s wearing these great big comfy clothes trying to shield himself from the things that are stressing him out,” she explained.

Reaching Out

One of the goals of the program is to demystify mental illness in a way that makes it easier to recognize symptoms. Once you know the signs it becomes easier to reach out and help.

Marshall University student Isaac Bennett took the course so that he could be more helpful to classmates who can be easily overwhelmed with course work and new environments.

“Pretty much everyone I know struggles with mental health," he said, "I want to be able to support my friends. Stuff like this puts more tools in my toolbox.”

Most mental health issues manifest before the age of 24 according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. That alliance also notes that that one in five people in the country has a mental illness.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid Class, contact Amy Gamble: namigreaterwheeling@gmail.com.