It’s Saturday morning at 8 a.m. and the mental health first aid training in Washington, Connecticut, is packed. There are teenagers, grandparents, and people from all over the county.
All the participants in the class are standing in a line, holding cards with physical and mental diseases on them. They’re supposed to arrange themselves in order of severity of the disability, with gingivitis on one end and severe dementia on the other. Sprinkled in there are people holding cards like moderate anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
This exercise is supposed to teach people to think of mental illness like any other disease. Severe depression stands next to metastatic breast cancer. Mild depression and osteoarthritis are down at the other end of the room.
Everyone is here to get certified in mental health first aid. The course is eight hours long. It’s a mixture of lectures, role playing, and exercises.
By the end of the class, people learn what mental illness looks like, how to reach out to someone in a crisis, and where to get help.
Valerie English Cooper teaches the training. She says we should think of mental health first aid in the same way we think of CPR: You don’t need to be a doctor, or a psychiatrist, to save someone’s life.
“A cardiologist isn’t going to be there when someone is having symptoms of a heart attack, but a community member might be.”
She says these kinds of trainings offer communities the rare chance for people to help their neighbors get healthy before they turn to drugs.
“If we can support individuals who are struggling in some way, if we can intervene early and get people the support and connection they need, that might help stave off an addiction and overdose."
John Simoncelli is a drug and alcohol counselor in Litchfield County. He says that because Litchfield is a smaller, more rural county, it doesn’t get as much attention - or help - in battling the opioid crisis. But the county needs it.
“If someone is in need in a more rural area, it really limits their need to access that care. So if they live in a place like Falls Village or Goshen or Salisbury, one of these places that's remote and in the Northwest Corner, and they need mental health services, who do they call and how do they get there?”
Both Simoncelli and English Cooper see the opioid epidemic and mental health care as two sides of the same coin.
“We know that what drives addiction are some underlying causes, like trauma or undiagnosed mental health illness like depression or anxiety. So in order to adequately treat addiction we need to treat those underlying causes.”
Simoncelli runs a private practice in Torrington. He’s been a drug and alcohol counselor for more than ten years, years that have seen big changes in the field.
“It's gotten worse everywhere. So the opiate problem has been a problem throughout the entire country, and in Litchfield County it has certainly gotten worse.”
But Simoncelli says there are some silver linings to that increase. For years, someone with a substance abuse disorder couldn’t enroll in a mental health treatment facility.
“You know, I say all the time that the one good thing coming out of the opioid crisis is that people are starting to pay attention to mental health. And they're no longer separating mental health and addiction.”
That may be true. But President Donald Trump has a budget that proposes cuts of almost $326 million in mental health and substance abuse prevention programs. Programs like the one Valerie English Cooper leads in Litchfield County.
So far, English Cooper and her peers have trained a thousand people in Litchfield County, or a little over one person per square mile. That’s admirable, but she says there’s still much to be done, and only 12 months left to do it. The federal grant runs out next September. Until then, she’ll be holding these trainings, regularly.
To find upcoming trainings, visit Mental Health Connecticut.