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Connecticut Airmen learn mental health first aid, resilience

Carissa Peckrul, a Health360, Inc. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor, teaches an MHFA certification course to members of the Connecticut Air National Guard, Jan. 15, 2020, at Bradley Air National Guard Base, East Granby, Conn. MHFA is a public education program that introduces participants to the warning signs of mental health problems and teaches them how to respond to a mental health crisis. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney)

Carissa Peckrul, a Health360, Inc. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor, teaches an MHFA certification course to members of the Connecticut Air National Guard, Jan. 15, 2020, at Bradley Air National Guard Base, East Granby, Conn. MHFA is a public education program that introduces participants to the warning signs of mental health problems and teaches them how to respond to a mental health crisis. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney)

EAST GRANBY, Conn. -- If you can remember, if it's not too painful to think about, your darkest, most difficult days … how did you pull through?"

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright raised this question during a podcast in November. By the end of that year, 137 members of the U.S. Air Force had died by suicide. The toll represented a 33 percent increase in suicides over the previous year and a growing mental health crisis in the Air Force.

Members of the Air Force, across the active duty, Guard and Reserve, are developing initiatives to support mental fitness and increase resilience. As part of the effort, the Connecticut Air National Guard hosted a Mental Health First Aid Certification Course in January in coordination with the Healthy Minds Alliance of Health360 Inc.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a public education program that teaches participants how to recognize and respond to mental health crises.

"The training focuses on anxiety, depression, psychosis and substance use," said Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Gonzalez-Smith, 103rd Airlift Wing human resource adviser and sexual assault victim advocate. "It provides people with a tool to help in a mental health emergency."

Knowing how to immediately help someone experiencing a mental breakdown could prevent that person from hurting themselves or others. Just as the American Heart Association trains people to perform life-saving CPR for cardiac emergencies, the Connecticut Air National Guard aims to equip Airmen with potentially lifesaving MHFA skills.

"We like to think of it as CPR for your brain," said Gonzalez-Smith.

Airmen with various backgrounds and experience took part in the training. Lt. Col. Eric Wismar, a participant who serves as a chaplain for the Connecticut National Guard Joint Force Headquarters and the 103rd Airlift Wing, has provided counseling services to military members for more than 17 years. He said earning an MHFA certification enhanced his job skills and could help Air Force leaders in other fields be more comfortable when confronted with mental health crises.

"This was outstanding training," said Wismar. "Some things for us health care providers were a refresher, but many things were new to me. I think it's good because it gives leaders and those who were in attendance the tools to identify different mental illnesses or substance abuse possibilities. If a person has them [mental health issues], you learn how to approach them and how to feel comfortable in terms of assessing the situation and thinking about what the next step might be."

Numerous studies suggest the stigma associated with mental illness prevents some military members from using mental health services. Gonzalez-Smith thinks that educating Airmen about mental illness through MHFA training could help reduce stigma.

"I think anytime you can decrease the stigma of mental health, it's a good opportunity, so I thought it would be a good opportunity for the Connecticut Air National Guard to learn some new skills that all Airmen could use," said Gonzalez-Smith.

The ultimate goal of Air Force mental health initiatives is to promote resilience among Airmen, which supports readiness and a more lethal force. Equipping Airmen with the skills to help one another get through their most difficult times is one step the Connecticut Air National Guard is taking to achieve this goal.

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