Improving How We Work with the Mentally Ill

Masharia Holman, Pretrial Services Officer

Providing access to a wide array of pro-social interventions is one of the unique features of PSA’s Treatment Program. PSA has a longstanding commitment to addressing the needs of those with mental health problems, as these often co-exist with substance use disorders; and recently added to our repository of interventions with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). MHFA is an international adult public education program designed to improve participants' knowledge and modify attitudes and perceptions about mental health, including how to respond to individuals in need. Two staff from PSA’s Treatment Program – Glenda Flowers and Shay Holman – recently were certified as MHFA trainers and provided training to 55 employees from PSA, CSOSA and several individuals from other DC justice partner agencies.

Training the trainers involved a 40-hour program provided by the National Council for Behavioral Health, and the trainers deliver an 8-hour course to others. In this interactive course, they teach the risk factors and warning signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. MHFA builds an understanding of how these illnesses affect individuals, provides an overview of common treatments, and teaches basic skills for providing help to someone who may be experiencing symptoms.

The training does not prepare someone to diagnose mental illnesses or provide therapy. Much like traditional Red Cross First Aid, MHFA is designed to help paraprofessional and laypersons provide emergency support until an individual can be linked to appropriate professional resources.  The 8-hour course provides a 3-year certification in MHFA.

The course content covers:

  • The potential risk factors and warning signs for a range of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety/trauma, psychosis, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and self-injury;
  • An understanding of the prevalence of various mental health disorders in the U.S. and the need for reduced stigma in communities;
  • A 5-step action plan encompassing the skills, resources and knowledge to assess the situation, select and implement appropriate interventions, and help an individual in crisis connect with appropriate professional care;
  • The evidence-based professional, peer, social, and self-help resources available to help someone with a mental health problem.

PSA’s MHFA originated in Australia, has spread to 14 countries and is now listed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, which only features interventions that have been assessed independently and rated for quality of research and readiness for dissemination (1).

As an agency committed to both individual and organizational learning, PSA is pleased to have expanded our capacity to help this population which has special needs.

More information about MHFA is available at