How Providence St. Joseph Health, Kaiser Permanente are embracing mental health first aid

Mental health first aid can facilitate difficult conversations, experts say. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Providers who want to improve care for patients with behavioral health concerns should consider using mental health first aid tactics to help clinicians better identify people with mental health needs. 

That was the message this week from two of the country’s largest health systems—Providence St. Joseph Health and Kaiser Permanente—both of which added the intervention in 2016 to flag at-risk patients while also engaging staff around behavioral health.

And while it's too soon to give hard data on the impact, leaders from the two systems said they've seen anecdotal evidence they are doing a better job at identifying behavioral health problems earlier before they snowball into more complex issues that require more healthcare resources. 

“Oftentimes when we have just a simple conversation … we can stop a whole series of events,” said Bayley Raiz, senior director of mental health and social care management at Providence St. Joseph, speaking at the National Council for Behavioral Health’s annual conference.

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Just what is mental health first aid? Built on the acronym "ALGEE," the National Council for Behavioral Health said providers should:

  • Assess a patient for risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen, but don’t judge
  • Give reassurance and information
  • Encourage professional help and provide referrals as needed
  • Encourage self-help and other support 

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Providence St. Joseph focused on a “train the trainer” approach in rolling out its use of mental health first aid, training 50 people as instructors who go on to teach more people in the system. The system’s goal is to have 1% to 2% of its 111,000 caregivers trained in providing the first aid this year. Officials expect it will lessen the need for costlier interventions, Raiz said.

Kaiser Permanente trained 2,000 of its union clinicians on mental health first aid and is planning to train an additional 1,000 by the end of this year. In 2019, the system plans to turn its focus to a similar “train the trainer” approach to get 1,000 more people on board. 

The programs can come with challenges. Karen Franchino, senior consultant for mental health and wellness Kaiser's Care Management Institute, said it’s tough to have staff members go “offline” for the eight-hour training session. 

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Kaiser addressed this problem by engaging with union leadership to gather more support and has aligned the first aid training with other programs on mental health—including one targeting mental health issues for employees.

That approach, Franchino said, allows for advocates to bring a strong story back to leadership that gets them to buy-in on the issue, too.