If you encountered someone experiencing a mental crisis, would you know how to approach them?

A first-of-its-kind summit in New Jersey to address the need to expand access to mental health first aid training will take place this Wednesday. Leaders from 50 organizations, including the New Jersey Alliance of YMCAs, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of New Jersey, colleges, and fire departments will attend the event at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, according to Robert Kley, vice president and chief operating officer of Mental Health Association in New Jersey.

"Mental health first aid has been a national training model for about 10 years, and around the country over 500,000 individuals have been trained in mental health first aid, which is a great, eight-hour training that addresses mental health prevention issues, stigma issues and helping people get access to care with friends and neighbors and family members," Kley said.

He said the training is great "for the average person walking down the street as well as people that work in the helping professions." But Kley said New Jersey has been "a little bit behind the curve" with over a half a million people trained nationwide, and just about 8,000 in the Garden State.

Kley said that over the last year, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, MHANJ has been putting together a coalition of agencies that are certified in providing mental health first aid training, and is expanding that to agencies statewide.

"People are kind of trained to understand what mental health conditions are, what behavioral health conditions are, what are some of the scientific information around that, but then also how to recognize those signs in your neighborhood," Kley said.

Kley said the training sensitizes people to the fact that mental illness is in the community.

"Mental health first aid gives you those basic skills, just like CPR. You're not there to solve the heart attack, but your here to get people to the right places for help and support in the community," Kley said.

William Lovett, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance of YMCAs, said the summit is part of national movement to look at mental health from a preventative point of view.

"Part of the issue we face in mental health is, 'How do we equip parents, community members, agency, staff people to recognize some of the signs of someone who is in distress mentally?'" Lovett said. And once that's accomplished, he said, they need to be taught to direct a person to get the appropriate help.

Mental health problems affect about 60 million people in the U.S., yet the vast majority never receive care due to stigma, lack of understanding and system inadequacies, according to MHANJ. In New Jersey, Kley said, "the number is at least one in four (who are at some point) going to have a significant mental health issue."

Lovett pointed out one of the flashpoints with mental health issues has been around gun violence — "but, more and more, I think, communities are starting to recognize that they need to create an environment where when someone needs help, not only are there those around that can help direct them, but also that some of the stigma around getting treatment for mental health issues is removed from the community."

Lovett said there needs to be an environment in which "people don't feel ashamed to recognize that they're dealing with depression or whatever it is, or there's a relative and they realize that they need to make an intervention."

Lovett pointed out that there are 37 YMCAs in New Jersey, and that about 80 percent of residents live within three miles of a Y.

"For a YMCA, we have an obligation to take some leadership in this, and also because of the kind of organization we are, we're in a position where we can reach out to others in the community and bring them into the discussion, whether it's municipal leadership, or a faith-based community or other not-for-profits," Lovett said.

More information on mental health first aid training is available at the Mental Health Association of New Jersey's website.

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