Skip to main content

What Mental Health First Aid Taught Me: How to Be a Better Friend

What Mental Health First Aid Taught Me: How to Be a Better Friend

A few years ago, I was walking with a friend – someone who I had just met a few months earlier – and she began telling me how she was going through a rough patch. She was self-harming, misusing pills, and skipping work. I remember a lot about that conversation: it was a warm summer night and we were walking along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. I remember I hated my job and contemplated skipping work some days too.

Mostly I remember I froze; I had no clue what to say or how to react.

In spite of me being an incredibly empathetic person and experiencing my own struggles, I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to panic, but I also didn’t want to just brush it off as if it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t want to invalidate her feelings, but I didn’t want to try to “fix” her.

She is not, nor has she ever been, broken – just like anyone else struggling with mental health issues.

Fast forward to now. This past week, that same friend told me that she has some extreme hormone imbalances and they are contributing to a handful of physical health issues for her. I immediately asked her questions about her symptoms and what she was doing to help alleviate these symptoms. I looked up “hormone imbalances” online to educate myself and asked how I can help.

Do you see the difference?

With physical health issues, I knew what to do. I knew to ask questions and find out how to help. There was no shame in talking about these things. With her mental health struggles, I didn’t know how to approach the topic in the least bit.

As a society, we are prepared for physical health issues: we talk about it without fear of judgment; we ask our doctors honest questions; we proudly wear ribbons and walk for illnesses like breast cancer and MS; we get trained in CPR and first aid.

What about mental health?

Although we have come a long way in talking about and normalizing the conversation around mental health, there’s still more to be done. Enter: Mental Health First Aid – a training that gives you the skills you need to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing and mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis.

Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The class (which I have taken) arms you with the skills to help a stranger in the supermarket who’s having a panic attack, ask someone if they’re considering suicide, and talk to a friend or family member who’s struggling with mental health issues. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.- 43.8 million, or 18.5% -experiences mental illness in a given year.

I have a handful of friends who struggle with mental health issues… anxiety, addiction, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, and more. This class has given me the courage to ask them questions and have candid, honest conversations with them, learn about their conditions, and most of all, ask them how I can help. From doing this, I’ve learned – more than anything – my friends WANT to have this dialogue. It’s like a breath of fresh air to them.

I’m now more in tune with their actions and behavior patterns and I know what they need from me:

  • I know to check in often with my friend who’s pregnant and just went back on anxiety medication because she had a panic attack.
  • I know it be a grounding sense of reality for my friend when we’re getting coffee in our hometown because that’s where he had a massive psychotic breakdown.
  • I know to reach out to another friend incessantly when she doesn’t respond to my call for a few days because she’s crawled back into her turtle shell of depression.
  • I know that when I don’t hear from one friend or see any posts on social media, I need to do some digging to be sure he didn’t relapse again.

Becoming trained in Mental Health First Aid has helped me have hard conversations and be a better friend. I’ve used it in many situations and it’s benefited me more than I could ever have imagined.

Jefferson Center is proud to offer these courses free to our community. For more information or to register for a Mental Health First Aid class, visit:

Shannon Gwash is the Director of Wellness Services for Jefferson Center and is also a Certified Mayo Clinic Wellness Coach. She earned her MS from the University of Denver in Strategic Health Communications/Behavior Change. She has nearly 10 years of experience in the communication world and nearly three in parenting … which clearly makes her an expert there. To stay sane, she runs around Sloan’s Lake, hikes with her daughter, enjoys outdoor concerts, and reads nerdy books.

Contact Us

Reach out and connect with Jefferson Center today. 

    Getting Started
    Jefferson Center provides client-centered services designed to meet your individual mental health, substance use, and wellness needs. We’re dedicated to meeting you where you are in your journey and working together to help you live a satisfying and hopeful life.

    Emergency & Crisis Services
    • Hotline
    • Walk-in crisis centers
    • Mobile crisis services throughout the state