The Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri–St. Louis helped set the example last month as three Missouri residents became the state’s first deaf Americans certified as Mental Health First Aid instructors. Up to now, only one other state (Pennsylvania) has certified deaf MHFA instructors.
Colleen Burdiss, De Linda Kelly and James Frost earned the certification on April 17 after attending a week-long training led by MIMH’s Jermine Alberty and Rachel Christiansen. Nearly 15 newly certified instructors, made up of health professionals, teachers and police officers, resulted.
For Burdiss, adult program manager with Paraquad in St. Louis, her husband’s own mental health crisis was a motivating factor to take the class. Once, he was taken to the emergency room and restrained because his gesticulations were interpreted as aggressive. Burdiss had to explain that her husband was not being aggressive. He was merely deaf, like her, and his movements were part of his speech.
“If I wasn’t there,” Burdiss said, “it would have been impossible. Even something as simple as identification would have been a problem. I had to explain sign language and how we express emotion with it to both the hospital staff and the police.”
As the new cohort of MHFA instructors learned, intervening in a crisis is almost always about communication. Each activity in their training was imbued with aspects of the MHFA action plan that emphasizes listening and providing clear information.
“This is a hands-on approach,” said Christopher Koester, a St. Louis County Police Officer and member of the Crisis Intervention Team. “With Mental Health First Aid, we’re given the tools to quickly assess a situation and provide a clear route to intervention and help. It’ll really help on our end.”
For Burdiss and the others, the training was the first step in the right direction, both for them personally and the community at large.
“The class is great for exposure,” said Frost, president and owner of Accessible Strategies Group in St. Louis. “There’s a huge stigma about mental health in the deaf community. Deaf people don’t think they have enough access to health care. Hopefully, through classes like this and increased awareness, this will help individuals to better advocate for themselves.”
Most psychologists and other health professionals depend on specific keywords, with certain interpretations said Kelly, director of communication and transition services for Midland Empire Resources for Independent Living in St. Joseph, Mo.
“But for us, the treatment can often be off due to the communication barrier,” Kelly said. “The words we use and those they use don’t always lead to the same meaning, despite everyone’s best efforts. Our expressiveness, through our movements, is part of our culture.”
As the cohort of new instructors was called one by one to stand and receive their certificates of completion, the room was simultaneously silent and full of applause. With their hands raised and turning at the wrist, the whole class used the sign language for applause to welcome each other into the ranks of MHFA Instructors.
For more information on MHFA trainings visit mimh.edu.
This story was written by Daniel Musgrave, who is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UMSL.