I can breathe now. After spending the past 13 months trying to get accepted and five days powering through a dense curriculum and teaching simulations, I finally received my certification as a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. Therapy and chicken wings for everyone. I first heard of the Mental Health First Aid course as a recommendation from Chirlane McCray, writer, editor, and First Lady of New York City, as she explained the city's ThriveNYC campaign at a mental health roundtable she hosted at her residence. The city intends to certify 250,000 people in Mental Health First Aid by the end of 2020, so I signed up for the eight-hour course a few months later.
The course teaches you to identify and engage with people developing a mental health issue or experiencing a mental health crisis, “how to offer and provide initial help, and how to guide a person toward appropriate treatments and other supportive help” per the manual. Fortunately, no matter how much your inner empath or goodest intentions lead you reach for that cape, it doesn't require or empower you to diagnose and "fix" people or wipe people's woes away. You won’t be a therapist after a week. Stand down, future Iyanla.
I learned a lot while soaking up the course material and interacting with the trainers and other students. Here are some highlights.
1. A capable, prepared teacher makes all the difference. A few weeks back I went to a two-day ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Training) course way out yonder at Fort Totten in Queens, with a group of Army Reserve folks. My homeboy Nick Gaines, Suicide Prevention Program Director for the US Department of Defense and occasional co-host on my podcast, The Extraordinary Negroes, led the course with a woman I'll call Sally. Like the MHFA course, they recommend teaching the two-day course with a partner, given the density of the material and length of the trainings.
One way to ensure a group of grownups in a classroom setting is bored to the point of stabbiness is to sit your raggedy ass down in front of the projector screen and read from the same book we're reading from, looking up occasionally more out of obligation than to confirm a connection. Be awkward, laugh nervously, and make dry, powerfully unsuccessful quips, making sure to silently ask "AMITE?" with your eyes as you scan the room, pleading for approval while cackling at your own tacky comments. Don't absorb anything beforehand and give off the I'm-also-seeing-this-shit-for-the-first-time vibe. Sally was motherfucking horrendous.
There's a lot of material to cover in five days, and talking about promoting life and preventing death gets heavy after a while. Pretending to care about being perceived as knowledgeable, capable, and dynamic is the fucking very least you can do. Don't be like Sally the Terrible.
2. Asking someone directly if they're contemplating harming or killing themselves or someone else is much harder than I anticipated. It’s a touchy topic, because we may not be ready for the answer we receive. Both the ASIST and MHFA courses stressed the importance of clarifying someone's mindset and intentions in order to know how to best proceed. You wouldn't suggest a suicide hotline or call 911 for a friend just having a really, really, really rough week, so clarity is key. During both trainings, we did extensive role play navigating distressful situations and practicing asking someone directly about taking their own life. And the shit never got easier, even though it was just a simulation. It's normal to wonder whether asking, “Are you planning to kill yourself?”or “Do you a plan?” could somehow inspire them to act. Thankfully, it doesn't. Knowing the answer will inform your next steps, so it’s better to just count to three, and ask the shit. And don’t gasp in disgust, recoil in horror, or fling holy water in response, please and thank you.
3. I believe I would be a great therapist (someday), but I can still do a shit ton of good without a license or MSW. I’ve struggled with this for some time, and I usually have to be reminded that tweeting, writing essays, hosting and participating in mental health-related events, talking, and checking in on folks and encouraging others to do the same is also important.
Lately, I've been working and speaking in spaces with academic folk and experienced mental health professionals. Most of the people in the class I took at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were from city agencies, courts, and office buildings, some mandated by employers, others not. A few weeks ago, in my first meeting as board member for the Center For Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at CUNY Graduate Center, I, 32, listened during introductions as longtime professors, activists, and baby boomers described their lengthy academic/non-profit/mental health backgrounds. I can admit that I sometimes feel out of place or as if a lack of letters behind my name renders my opinions or perspective less valuable or credible in these rooms. I’ve become accustomed to being the Black one without a degree in these spaces, but showing up and speaking up in the Mental Health First Aid instructor’s class helped me see my value.
I made sure they knew that I knew my shit and was just as down to make a difference as they were. I—he who secretly fears public speaking and sometimes rehearses, with sweaty palms, what he’s about to say during ice breakers—spoke up about the mental health campaign and hub for Black wellness that I’m developing, and invited everyone to my event TONIGHT AT THE SCHOMBURG CENTER IN HARLEM, #GetSomeJoy: A Blacktravaganza for Mental Health Awareness. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and many offered themselves and connections to the cause. It put a little rooter in my tooter and it gave me a lil more juice. The lesson: I don’t need a degree to help and connect with people. Sa da tay.
4. Everyone can benefit from learning Mental Health First Aid. If you know people, work with people, birthed people, are friends with people, fuck or ride the subway or elevator with people, encounter people down at the Piggly Wiggly, or married a people, there is something useful in this course for you. No matter what the angry, pint-sized Hotep Warriors tell you, we all have feelings, and we have them to experience them. All of them. For free. And sometimes, those feelings are shitty, like grown-up Rudy Huxtable’s acting abilities and Miley dance steps. And that’s okay. I knew this course was good for me, but learning to teach it reminded me that everyone can save someone. Even you, proud owner of lifetime VIP Flo-Rida concert tickets and a mouth full of fashion braces.
5. To be an effective teacher, you have to love it. Or at least the subject matter. Or your students. Or be a phenomenal actor. Even if you’re not the best speaker, are occasionally musty and shy as hell, or even put blue contact into your Negro eyes in the 2000 and the 17, passion and give-a-fuck can trump all of that. Molding minds, especially arming someone to go out and affect the lives of countless other someones, is not a job you can phone in, Britney Spearsingly. Despite your best efforts, your I-don’t-give-a-shitness is hanging out more often than not and nobody wins. Do the world a favor, spare yourself the agony, and find something you actually give a fuck about.