My Mental Health First Aid Training
by Harry Box

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When the Behind the Scenes charity announced it would be offering training covering how to interact with a person in crisis, I was immediately seized by the concept, yet also trepidatious. First, there was the time commitment, something that is in short supply around here. Then, not knowing what the training would be like, I dreaded that it would be a magnet for people bent on making mortifying confessions about their families’ psychiatric troubles. Or worse, it would be a dull slog, a corporate production effort with jargony, unactionable material and a regrettable waste of time.

I have an active imagination when it comes to foreseeing my own misery when I volunteer to do something like training. My pessimism is not unjustified, however. I know firsthand the challenge of delivering engaging, insightful, memorable training. I have endured lots of training, moreover I have developed online training myself.

I won’t hold you in suspense. The training was none of those things; it exceeded expectations in every way. It was excellent. Later, when I reflected on my journey, and the value of being in possession of this training, I thought I should share it. Here’s what it was like.

In 2019, Behind the Scenes started to focus on a range of mental health issues. A description of the initiative begins this way “As the worldwide conversation on mental health has grown, so too has the conversation within our industry. We are learning more about the dimensions of the problem and the depths of people’s pain and despair, and the role that the unique stresses, demands and culture of our industry play. The time has clearly come for all of us to take an active role in fighting the stigma associated with mental illness and to offer a helping hand to our colleagues who are struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression, harassment, or addiction.” Behind the Scenes has collaborated with other concerned industry and mental health organizations and individuals to provide a wide array of resources, one of which is Mental Health First Aid training.

Deciding to commit to this investment of time and money was a process for me. The training takes place in two parts, a 2 to 4-hour self-paced online course, which took me a little over 2 hours, and a 6-hour virtual live instructor-led session, which took a little over five for my group. The cost is $125. (Training Trust Fund reimbursement is available for IATSE members and signatories, and scholarships are available through the CHAUVET Professional ReSet Fund.)

My first thought was “how likely am I to need this training?” It may sound odd, but it made me take a mental inventory of all my friends and family and the challenges in their lives. I thought about how I would manage, helping a friend in crisis. Would I know what to do if someone was having a panic attack, or felt depressed or suicidal, or struggled with alcoholism? In my lifetime, I have known several people during a time of crisis in their lives. I imagine that is true for most people. We are generally ill-prepared for it. I did not have to think for long before I realized that it is not at all unlikely that I could one day be challenged by such a situation. I suspect most people making this assessment would come to a similar conclusion.

The concept of the training is that it is first aid. You are not being trained to be a psychiatrist. You would no more attempt to give therapy to a suicidal friend than you would commence open-heart surgery on them if they happened to have a heart attack. But you would give them CPR if you were trained for it, keep them alive, and get them to an ER. You would follow through and see them in recovery and let them know you care about them.

As a friend, colleague, or family member, the first aider is the first person on the scene, so to speak, the first person who might recognize the signs and symptoms of a problem. From there, a first aider needs to know how to interact with a person in crisis, connect them with help, and follow through. There are pitfalls—things that may be natural enough to say, that are in fact unhelpful and possibly destructive. The training provides a skill set and vocabulary to talk effectively with someone. It enables the first aider to be clear headed as they process the situation and deliberate in their thoughts, words, and actions so they can avoid the pitfalls and steer towards shore.

The online training was frictionless. The instructional design follows all the best practices for good online training. It consisted of slides, narration, useful acronyms to help remember essential steps, and interactive exercises to help cement the concepts into memory. The curriculum is based on an international training program called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). The program was created in Australia in 2000, brought to the U.S. in 2008, and is now in 24 countries around the world. In the US it is administered by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The Behind the Scenes training uses industry-specific scenarios and references.

This was all prep for the live virtual training, which for me took place on a Sunday afternoon/evening (training is offered at a variety of days and times). Five or six hours sounds like a long time for a live virtual course, but the time went by quickly and it was well spent. Our course facilitator was Bryan Huneycutt of HuneyBadger Entertainment Consulting. Bryan has over 30 years of experience in the live event production industry with a focus on safety. He was Program Manager for Entertainment Safety for Disney Parks and Resorts Live Entertainment. He currently serves on the Steering Committee for the Behind the Scenes Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Initiative and as the Chair of the USITT Health and Safety Commission.

Bryan was clearly experienced at guiding adult learning. He was respectful of everyone, clear and to the point, listened as much as he taught, had a sense of humor, and kept things moving. Being a veteran of the entertainment industry, he knows the stressors—the pace, anxiety, exhaustion, family tensions, and the “difficult personalities” that seem to be part and parcel with working in this industry.

My fellow travelers turned out to be mostly from the motion picture television side of entertainment. I had expected a larger proportion of people to be concert roadies and theater techs, but my group included two directors of photography, two camera operators, a costume designer, a set medic, and a guy who was in the military but had a girlfriend in our industry. Bryan occasionally sent us into break-out groups to brainstorm on a problem, and so the participants got to know one another over time. The variety of backgrounds and experiences contributed enormously to the discussion.

In the final hour or so of the training, we watched a series of scenarios—filmed scenes. The scenes provided a springboard for making observations and “practicing” the concepts we had learned in the training. What was remarkable was the quality of these vignettes. The writing was subtle and realistic, and the acting stunningly good. They had none of the cheese you might expect in a training video, and, notably, the cinematography was also expertly crafted. Given the audience in our group, I felt obligated to call this out to my classmates and we had a laugh about it. The Academy Award for best actor in a training film goes to the grandfather whose grief and loss threatens to overwhelm him. The quality vignettes brought it home. It made it as real as you could hope to do in a classroom setting. It demonstrated the signals that could be easy to miss or misinterpret, and it modeled the value and the limits of the role of a first aider.

When the training was completed, I received certification as a Mental Health First Aider, valid for three years. Like CPR training, I’ll need a refresher from time to time. Participants have access to a participant guidebook, and the Behind the Scenes website has BeThe1To suicide prevision materials for review.

The day that I did the training, I had half a dozen other things that needed to be done. I had such pressing immediate pressures on my time that I almost backed out and would have forfeited my fee. I can only say that once I’d done the training, I felt the value of the training far outweighed anything else I may have accomplished with those hours. I whole heartedly encourage people to take the opportunity to get this training. It could help you get through one of the most difficult and important events that life puts in your hands and could save the life of someone you love.

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Behind the Scenes Foundation makes no representations or warranty whatsoever, either expressed or implied, regarding any information or advice provided by this training. In no event shall Behind the Scenes Foundation be liable to you or anyone else for any decision or action taken in reliance on information provided by this training.