Jewish agencies offer ‘mental health first aid’ training


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of St. Louis will offer a free, daylong certification workshop Nov. 17 in “mental health first aid” for professionals and volunteer leaders in the Jewish community. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, JProSTL and the Inclusion Initiative are sponsoring the workshop.    

“We feel that such program will help us start a community conversation and make people feel more comfortable discussing mental health issues,” said Rinat Kisin, inclusion coordinator for the St Louis Jewish Community Inclusion Initiative and Marci Mayer Eisen, director of the Millstone Institute, in a joint statement. 

 “We were all touched, both professionally and personally, by recent suicides of young individuals in the Jewish community, and we understand there is so much to do regarding mental health. We thought a good place to start would be to help professionals in the Jewish community gain basic knowledge and skills.”  

Founded by a group of families in 1979, today NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. Based in Arlington, Va., NAMI has more than 1,200 local affiliates spread across every state. (For details on the national organization, see For information on the local affiliate, see  

Darwyn Walker, executive director of NAMI St. Louis, will conduct the workshop, which will be held at the Federation office in the Jewish Federation building at 12 Millstone Dr. To register, call 314-442-3801 or send an email to [email protected].  

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Walker spoke recently about the workshop and mental health issues.    


What exactly is a mental health first aid course? 

 It’s an eight-hour, evidence-based training course that teaches what to look for in people who are in emotional or psychiatric distress, how to tie those signs to what is going on symptomatically and how to communicate with the individual.   


So it’s response training, similar to regular first aid?  

It is. Except in some cases, when people see a person in mental distress, they may respond by walking away because they don’t want to get involved. This workshop de-stigmatizes mental health illnesses. After all, the stigma comes from fear of what you don’t know – and this course teaches you what to do.  


How widespread is mental illness?  

Some 20 percent of the population will deal with a mental or behavioral health issue in any given year, and every situation impacts their families as well, so between 60 and 80 percent of the population is affected.   


Please talk more about the training.  

We don’t teach from a medical model, but from an experiential model. Participants learn to recognize behaviors that indicate stress or illness, and do something about it. We talk about the signs of mental illness and how to connect those signs, symptoms and behaviors to a diagnosable illness.   


What are some of the signs and symptoms? 

A person may be withdrawn, confused, disoriented, or it may be someone who doesn’t want to be in crowded places with high levels of noise, which can cause anxiety.   


And what do you teach about helping that person?  

We teach how to determine how serious or disabling the situation is. We teach how to talk to the person. We teach how to recognize if someone is not functional. And we teach how to get to somebody who can help. Often, mental illness can be more treatable than some medical illnesses.  In addition to the Jewish community, who takes NAMI’s workshops?  We’ve trained members of the general public, nursing home staff, homeless center staff, public safety officers and corrections officers. We have a youth version of the training as well.   


What drew you to this field?  

My son has schizophrenia. At the onset of his illness, we found NAMI and got the education and skills we needed to help him.