How to identify, understand and respond to early signs of mental health and substance use issues with Mental Health First Aid

By Regence
August 19, 2021
Regence mental health

Mental health concerns are growing across the country, and mental health and substance use issues are considered a companion crisis to COVID-19. Now, more than ever, it is important to understand and identify mental health and substance use issues and how to respond to help those in need.

About 1 in 4 American adults has a diagnosable mental health condition. In fact, a person can have more than one at a given time. Depression, for example, can co-occur with substance misuse and anxiety. Stigma and fear of being judged for having a mental health condition continue to be major barriers for people who need care. Many people with mental health or substance use issues are hesitant to seek help or don’t know how or who to ask. Family and friends might notice that something is amiss with someone who is developing or experiencing an issue but might not know how to identify signs or help a loved one find the right care. Like any illness, getting someone to care before it is too late, saves lives.

Mental Health First Aid training and resources

Like CPR and first-aid training, mental health first aid courses teach how to recognize the early signs of emotional strain. The training also emphasizes the importance of appropriate communication and responses to address the stigma often tied to mental health. Mental Health First Aid is a public education program operated by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, helping people to better understand mental health conditions, support timely intervention and save lives. Over 2 million people in the U.S. have been trained through a network of more than 12,000 certified instructors, including Regence’s Fayth Dickenson.

“Mental Health First Aid is meant to help train people to identify signs early on,” Dickenson, Regence manager of behavioral health, says. “People are equipped to better understand and engage a person who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use condition, as well as their family, to find the care and support needed at the right time.”

A key element of the training is the Mental Health First Aid Action Plan, which uses the acronym A.L.G.E.E.:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies

In addition to providing a simple framework to help address issues like anxiety, depression and substance use disorders, it also prepares trainees to appropriately address crises like panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.

“It’s been a difficult 18 months—the global pandemic, social unrest and economic instability have all taken a toll on our collective mental health,” Dickenson says.  “By educating ourselves through the training and talking openly about mental health, we can stomp out the stigma and get people the care they need.”

Mental Health First Aid encourages early detection and intervention by teaching the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use issues, with a focus on being a first responder, someone who helps connect an individual to appropriate professional resources when necessary. The program offers concrete tools and answers key questions like, “What can I do?” and, “Where can someone find help?” This includes local mental health resources, national organizations, support groups and online tools.

Just as CPR training gives people the skill set without formal training, Mental Health First Aid, a nationally recognized curriculum, is designed to arm anyone at any knowledge level to support our community in crisis – in some cases preventing suicide and also reducing the stigma associated with mental health.

“There’s a lack of support for people with mental health conditions because we don’t know what to say,” Dickenson says. “One of the biggest takeaways from the course is learning how to ask those hard questions and start a conversation. The training teaches you to see the person—separate from their illness or symptoms—and treat them with respect and dignity.”

Take time to self-assess your own mental health

The good news is that there are steps we can all take to support our own mental health today, including:

  • Take time to do things that bring you joy: Whether that’s reading a book, talking with a friend, spending time outside or engaging in a hobby.  
  •  Seek help when you need it: We all have days where we feel sad or down, but if these feelings continue or start to affect your home or work life, it may be time to seek professional help.
  • Educate yourself: One of the best ways we can educate ourselves is through Mental Health First Aid training.

Behavioral health resources for Regence members

Whether you need occasional emotional support or ongoing mental health care, Regence has a variety of programs to prevent, identify and treat mental health and substance use disorders. Regence members who want to learn about available resources through their health plan can sign in to their account on or call our customer service team.

Regence mental health continuum of care