I have a pretty extensive first aid kit in my apartment. It sits on top of my fridge, and though I rarely have to use it, whenever I need to crack it open for hydrogen peroxide, gauze, burn cream, or, more likely, a Band-Aid, I've been thankful it was there waiting. Any other tool kit, whether metaphorical or literal, is the same — though you may not need it every day, when you do, it's always better to have it at the ready. That's the philosophy of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a training program that prepares people to recognize the signs of — and respond to — mental illness and substance abuse. And now, Bioré Skincare is partnering with the National Council for Behavioral Health and MHFA as part of its “Get That Sh*t Out” campaign to bring the program to at least 100 colleges nationwide (registration is open from now through June 15, and courses will begin in the fall). 

While conversations around self-care and mental health have come to the fore in recent years, practice is different from theory. It's almost like doing a form of exercise — you may understand how to ride a bike, but if you haven't done it in a long time and you're asked to do pedal quickly up a hill, it's likely going to be harder to do than you think. "What I love the most about the training was that there are very actionable things that you can take away. I think a lot of people are like, 'Mental health is so important. I support it.' But when you get into a situation, what do you say?" says Andrea Grunow, the senior manager of US brand communication at Bioré Skincare. She, like many at the brand, has voluntarily taken the MHFA course and feels it has already changed the way she communicates with people in her personal life. 

So, what exactly is Mental Health First Aid? Tramaine EL‑Amin, the assistant vice president of strategic partnerships for the National Council of Behavioral Health — who also does trainings for Mental Health First Aid — tells me that the course first answers the question, "How do we have conversations about mental health?" before answering the follow-up question, "What do I do when someone needs help?" 

"From a Mental Health First Aid perspective, it really is about, 'What can I really do?' And it's a program of action as opposed to a program of just awareness. And I think both are really required to make an impact on not only the people around you, but on yourself," EL-Amin continues. "A lot of times we're aware of how we feel or aware of what's going on with us. But really I think that Mental Health First Aid gives us those skills we need to act and to do something about it in a way that's comfortable for us and in a way that's unique."

I've been tapped into conversations surrounding mental health as a function of my career for a while (and for longer than that due to personal interest), but there were a few things in this course that I hadn't experienced in previous trainings. First and foremost, the instructor took care to mention multiple times throughout the day that we can — and should — sit out certain sections if we found them to be overwhelming or too personal. After all, if you're not taking care of yourself, you won't be properly able to take care of other people. 

I also appreciated the emphasis on the fact that someone with Mental Health First Aid should not be a replacement for professional help — it is a tool for triage, for more compassionate and empathetic conversations. Not only does that take some of the pressure off of the skills you're learning (and then, what you're providing), it also makes clear what you're there to do — have conversations, listen, and pass along resources, but never diagnose or treat. Leah Stone, associate director of face care at Bioré Skincare, was also impressed by the emphasis on this. "What I loved about their approach was the fact that they were very clear about the role that you play in this particular conversation. Nobody is an expert. It's not like we are now certified doctors or we're not offering medical advice. We're really just being given a toolkit," she says. 

Caroline Budhan, a naturopathic medicine student based in Seattle, Washington, took the MHFA training on the same day I did, and I caught up with her afterward to get her perspective. We chat a bit about how the program teaches people to recognize signs and symptoms of substance abuse and mental illness, as well as the need to overcome rampant stigma. "I think mental health, in general, in America — there's such a stigma. There's something wrong with you if you're anxious or depressed. You should always be like on 10, right? So the course normalized things for me. It made me feel more open to talking about these conditions," she tells me.

Budhan also recalls two situations she experienced recently where having MHFA training could have been beneficial. The first involved someone close to her who was having acute mental stress; during this time, she realized that she should be prepared to help and be able to ask questions like, "Are you considering suicide?" (which we are encouraged to practice asking during the course). The second instance was when she was experiencing some issues in her personal life that affected her work performance. She believes her colleagues weren't equipped to see the signs and symptoms we discussed in MHFA, so they assumed she was just bad at her job, rather than that she was dealing with her own mental health issues. 

"If my teammates had that particular training, maybe they would have been like, 'Okay, this person has consistently done stellar work for six years. In the last six, seven months, they've been faltering on rudimentary things, like as easy as scheduling an appointment. What's wrong? What's going on? Let me pull her aside and check in,'" she says. Both of these examples highlight the importance of this type of training, and how both Budhan and I will use our new skills in the future. Especially as we move toward the end of the pandemic (knock on wood) and whatever a new normal will look like, people will likely be interacting with each other in public again more and more, and having the tools taught by MHFA could be incredibly valuable.

Perhaps that's why Stone is particularly passionate about bringing this offering to college students, who are going through a pandemic during a major milestone time in their lives, and need the tools to deal with their own mental health and to help each other. "We think about just equipping those students with the ability to have conversations amongst their peers, at a time in their lives where mental health struggles and challenges present themselves, and we're just really excited to be able to offer that opportunity," she explains.

While the Bioré Get That Sh*t Out campaign will be rolling out to colleges across the U.S. and targeting college students, EL-Amin makes it clear that the training is for "anybody with a pulse." She continues, "I say that in jest, but the reason why everyone needs Mental Health First Aid really has to do with the fact that we're all human beings and we all have this need for connection." You can register here from now until June 15, and courses begin in the fall when the school season starts back up again. 

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