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Mental Health First Aid

You don’t have to go to Times Square to be inundated by advertisements. Living in New York City means I am constantly surrounded by advertising from the billboards I see on my run to entire subway carts that are redesigned to resemble a cozy family room at the holidays (I’m looking at you, Grand Central/Times Square Shuttle). Usually, I don’t pay too much mind to subway ads, but then I saw this one:

I made a mental note to check it out when I got home.

Basically, the Health Department invested an additional $5 million annually through 2020 for the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program run through ThriveNYC. The course is free to anyone within the five boroughs and lasts 8-hours over the course of one day. Participants learn skills needed to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, psychosis, suicidal behavior, overdose, and withdrawal. Everyone who takes part in the program leaves with a book of information as well as a 3-year certification showing that they have been certified in MHFA.

I scanned the website and was immediately interested. I signed up for a class on Saturday, March 10th at a church in Central Harlem. The trainers of this program will go anywhere and teach the course for free as long as ten people are present. Our trainers were remarkable individuals who mixed engaging activity with meaningful conversation and factual information.

Walking to the church that morning, I had no idea what to expect. Mental health is obviously something I am interested in but I had very little expectations for this seemingly random free course I had learned about from a subway ad.

First, I forgot how much I missed formal education. The night before, I felt quite pleased with myself talking about how I wanted to get up early so I could run before “class.” That in and of itself made me realize that I need to do a better job of seeking out these educational opportunities in the city.

Second, what started as a “could be fun” type thing turned into one of the best things I’ve ever done. I spent eight hours in that church in Central Harlem, surrounded by brave strangers who became friends and I learned more about myself, my new friends, and the community than I could have ever imagined.

This is the kind of thing that everyone should take part in. Much more effective for daily life than a times table, I wish this was the kind of thing that was mandated in all schools. On a personal note, I can remember one extremely painful time not too long ago within a close circle of my friends. We were hit with a mental health issue that none of us were prepared for. I remember sitting with these friends who were ultimately more like family. There were no more tears to cry or words to say. We were all just tired. Beyond that – and I can only speak for myself – I was frustrated. I was frustrated because I was surrounded by some of the brightest, kindest, and most innovative people I knew. Between the group of us, we were something of experts in a range of topics and experiences. But none of us knew where to begin. There’s something heartbreaking about that feeling of hopelessness.

At the end of the day, I looked around the room at the group of relative strangers I had smiled at in the 9 o’clock hour. It was different now though; we were all bonded by this experience. One of the women, a minister at her church, said that they would be closing in prayer at the front of the room and anyone who was interested should come up and join. That’s how I ended up squeezing the hands of these perfect strangers and feeling my soul fill up with the “good stuff.” To a chorus of “amens” I felt goosebumps from the inside out.

I cannot speak highly enough about this course or the fact that something like this exists. From the bottom of my heart, I urge every New Yorker reading this to find the time to do something that matters. I know that I will forever be grateful for that subway ad that opened my eyes to a world of love, compassion, and understanding.

Love always,


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