PROFILE: Responding to Mental Health Crises

One in four people struggle with mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, anxiety, or an eating disorder. In a society that often stigmatizes those who suffer from these conditions, seeking treatment can be an act of bravery and doesn’t happen as often as it should. Mental Health First Aid Colorado (MHFA-CO) is a leading voice in the darkness, bringing mental health education and training to help the general public identify those in need.

MHFA is an evidence-based international training program that teaches individuals to identify, understand and respond to those who may be developing a mental health and substance abuse issue, or who are in actual crisis. The MHFA-CO trainers present not only community classes, but also sessions geared toward professionals who work with the public such as police officers, primary care physicians, schools and faith communities. Tony Barkey, MHFA-CO Statewide Program Coordinator, stresses that these trainings are “intended for all people and organizations that make up the fabric of a community.”

There are youth and adult Mental Health First Aid trainings, and during the eight-hour course, attendees learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance abuse issues and how to help those in need get appropriate support. The goals of the sessions are to:

  • Preserve life when a person may be a danger to self or others
  • Provide help to prevent the problem from becoming more serious
  • Promote and enhance recovery
  • Provide comfort and support

Many people do not know the signs of a mental health crisis or are unsure how to help a person in need. These classes empower the public to take an active role in supporting and helping themselves and their fellow citizens.

Additionally, these classes help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns and foster compassion and understanding. Barkey cites the example of an individual in a recent training who shared their story of the daily struggle with depression and suicidal ideation. “Not only was it amazing that they were able to share their story to humanize the conversation, but also this was in a room full of coworkers that had no idea that this person was struggling. Taking this first step has the potential to really change lives.”


An affiliate of the national Mental Health First Aid USA campaign, MHFA-CO is housed within the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council and began in 2008. This collaborative effort of local non-profits and state agencies is working together to expand the program statewide.

With over 15,000 people certified in either youth or adult Mental Health First Aid and more added each month, the project is growing rapidly. MHFA-CO has received support from the statewide network of Community Mental Health Centers and Behavioral Health Organizations, the Colorado Departments of Public Health and Environment and Education, the Colorado Office of Behavioral Health and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. MHFA-CO is poised to continue educating for years to come.

Barkey is enthusiastic about the program and the positive effect it is having on people, not only through support for those in crisis but as an impetus for breaking through shameful stereotypes and prejudicial behavior. He shares an example of the large–scale impact the Mental Health First Aid training is having on the state. “One organization brought the training in for their staff, and was so moved that they actually went back and added behavioral health coverage to their company’s insurance plan benefits.”

This kind of recognition and acceptance of mental health treatment is rare but becoming more commonplace. With the incredible efforts of Mental Health First Aid Colorado, the state is well on the way to being a place where, as Barkey hopes, “Every Coloradan feels comfortable having a conversation about mental health.”

Previously published as part of CIVHC’s Spotlight on Innovation series.