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Mayor, city staff attend mental health training

Albuquerque’s mayor and other city staff members took eight hours Saturday to learn how to identify and help deal with people going through mental health crises, part of an effort to dissolve the stigma around mental illness, and ease the pressure on city public safety and law enforcement professionals.

It was two Central New Mexico Community College instructors’ seventh class on “mental health first aid,” but the first to be offered to anyone other than the school’s faculty, students and staff. The all-day course gave the city employees strategies for helping someone in the midst of a crisis and a primer on what mental health resources are available to them.

In addition to the mayor’s office, staff from the city’s constituent services department, its veteran’s liaison, 311, and family and community services attended the class, and Mayor Richard Berry is also hoping to identify other city staff who have regular interaction with the public to get the training.

Berry said Albuquerque is on the “forefront” nationally in addressing gaps in services for those with mental illness and the Saturday training is just one more way that the city is tackling the issue.

“Just having some understanding of mental illness issues … and how you can actually help, I think, is a critical step that our entire nation needs to take,” the mayor said.

Berry also said that spreading knowledge and strategies about dealing with mental health crises can ease the burden placed on firefighters and, especially, police officers, who he said are the “front lines” of mental health care. He likened the training to CPR, which can be crucial in the moments before paramedics arrive during an emergency.

“If you can, without putting yourself in a dangerous situation, help while waiting for them to get there, that’s the right thing to do,” Berry said.

The CNM instructors who teach the class, Rudy M. Garcia and James R. Johnson, said there are five more classes scheduled through August for both CNM students and city staff, and they hope to continue with the course after that. They said the course reflects a national conversation that is emerging about dealing with mental illness.

Philadelphia has trained nearly 20,000 of its citizens and almost all city employees in this type of mental illness intervention, and 12 states, including Arizona, Colorado and Texas, have made legislative appropriations for this type of training.

“What we’re trying to do is demystify mental illness and reduce the stigma,” said Garcia, also the CNM dean of students. “… We can have these conversations and we can do it in a very positive way.”