"When it affects a person's ability to work or develop relationships, it affects society in a huge way," she said.
National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare says it has trained 60,000 people nationwide. Momentum for mental health first aid, the effect of which has been documented more anecdotally than statistically, is growing, Ploper said.
Rhode Island has mandated that all new police recruits take the training, she said. In other states, personnel who come into regular contact with the mentally ill, such as first responders, school counselors and those in the social services, are being urged to complete the course.
Jim Starkey, a health promotion specialist for the Elkhart, Ind., County Health Department, wrote in a letter to the editor this summer introducing mental health first aid that "it saves lives and builds stronger communities." He sees it as especially valuable for school bus drivers, librarians, social workers and those in law enforcement and other public offices.
"We still shy away from people who are not acting normally," Starkey said. "We don't want people to be mental health counselors, but we can get help for somebody with the least possible expense and distress."
He recalls a man coming into the Health Department acting angrily and belligerently. The staff could have called 911, and he might have been restrained, Starkey said, but, instead, a supervisor sat him down and asked questions that uncovered he'd just lost his mother and needed a death certificate for her burial.
"He wasn't arrested, and he got what he needed," Starkey said.
Disruptions such as deaths, losses due to fire or severe weather or resettling from another country can trigger mental health issues. It's something that led Mike Moline, director of education for World Relief Chicago, and others in the agency that aids refugees to take mental health first aid instruction.
"Our clients can have challenges trying to adjust," Moline said, remembering a father of five who was learning to speak English and showed up in class one night speaking uncharacteristically loudly. He had to be removed, and it was learned two of his kids were sick.
"He had the weight of his family on him," Moline said, and needed professional help. "We need to know how best to handle such situations, what things to look for, when somebody is a danger to themselves and others."
Moline praised the role-playing exercises during class, in which somebody kept whispering to a participant to simulate schizophrenia and a person was assessed for risk of suicide.
"We asked, 'Are you thinking of suicide? Have you thought about how you'd do it? Have you thought about a time?'
"I've had to do it a number of times," Moline said. "I've had to ask, and people do answer, 'Yes, I am thinking of killing myself.' (The course) gives people new eyes to see issues they might not have noticed before, like if somebody says, 'My life is so hard, I can't wait until it's over.'"
The Community Counseling Centers of Chicago offers mental health first-aid courses each month. The next one is Sept. 13-14. Price is $40. Call 773-765-0814 or go to http://www.c4chicago.org/MHFA for more information.