Early intervention is key to supporting congregation members experiencing mental illness, according to an accredited mental health first aid instructor.
Marcel Koper, director of Awareness Centre and former coordinator of the Bethel Centre, said at least one in five Australians experience depression or anxiety every year.
“Sometimes we think we’re a bit different from the rest of the population, but mental health issues are as common inside churches as outside,” Mr Koper said.
“So I think there’s a real need to deliver mental health training for churches to know how to respond and what our role is for people with mental health problems.
“The most important thing is that early intervention is the key. Symptoms get worse and people get worse as they experience them longer.”
Bethel Centre and Mental Health First Aid Australia will be offering a two-day mental health first aid training course at the Centre for Theology and Ministry on 3 to 4 September.
The course, facilitated by Mr Koper, will see participants learn ways to assist family and friends experiencing mental health problems.
Those who complete the two-day course will be eligible to be an accredited mental health first aider for three years.
Developed by Australians Betty Kitchener and Professor Tony Jorm in 2001, mental health first aid training has now spread to more than 22 countries.
Some of the mental health problems covered in the course include depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance use.
Participants will also develop strategies to respond to crisis situations such as suicidal thoughts and behaviours, self-harm, panic attacks, traumatic events, drug or alcohol use, severe psychotic states and aggressive behaviours.
Mr Koper compared the course to a standard first aid training workshop.
“People who go to a two-day training for physical first aid learn compressions and mouth-to-mouth,” Mr Koper said.
“Similarly in mental health first aid, it’s a two-day training but they get a full understanding of the prevalence of mental health and the conditions around it and how to respond to them.”
The course also aims to challenge some of the stigma associated with mental illness, particularly in a church context.
“I’ve heard of people with anxiety problems being sent to exorcists,” Mr Koper said.
“We ask God to help us when we have anxiety symptoms and sometimes God isn’t alleviating our anxiety straight away, or it gets worse.
“In and out of churches – there’s still a lot of stigma in the wider community.
“Part of this mental health training is to reduce stigma and normalise mental health issues because the prevalence of it is quite high.”
Mr Koper said the purpose of mental health first aiders is to provide initial support and direct people to appropriate professional help.
“They’re not diagnosers – they’re first aiders,” Mr Koper said.
“They don’t have to be the counsellor or the therapist or the psychiatrist. They’re the people who get them the right help.”
Helping people seek treatment is not always a straightforward process.
“People are sometimes a bit resistant to get help,” Mr Koper said.
“Sometimes the right help is just to say ‘why don’t you come along to our weekly meditation night at the church’, or ‘let’s go for a coffee and have a chat’.
“One of the basics with this training is that you learn not all mental health problems are a crisis. For example, someone with depression isn’t necessarily immediately suicidal.”
Mr Koper said church members who are equipped with the right knowledge and training can feel empowered to offer appropriate support to friends struggling with mental health challenges.
“The more confident you are about having that conversation, the more likely they are to listen,” Mr Koper said.
“The most important stat is that people are more likely to get the help they need if it is suggested to them.
“If a person says in a confident way ‘there’s some help here, I think this is a good person we can go and see together,’ they’re more likely to engage the help they need.”
The Mental Health First Aid course runs from 3 to 4 September. To register, visit www.trybooking.com/WCDW .
Early bird rate (until 27 August) – $185
Standard rate (27 August – 1 September) – $220