Mental health program championed by Bert Nash poised to get federal funding to go nationwide

An idea championed by Lawrence’s Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center soon may be going nationwide.

The $1.1 trillion budget bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives today includes $15 million in funding to nationally launch a mental health first aid program that was tested in Lawrence.

“This $15 million nationally will make a bigger impact on people’s lives than most things you can spend $15 million on,” said David Johnson, CEO of the Bert Nash center.

The mental health first-aid program provides training to lay people on how to spot the symptoms of mental health conditions, and how to get people the help they need. Bert Nash was one of the first seven mental health centers in the country to begin testing the program in 2008. Since that time, Bert Nash has provided training to more than 1,000 community residents, including local police forces, school district employees, human resources professionals and just ordinary community members.

Johnson said one community member who recently went through the training reported that while in a meeting, there clearly was something wrong with one of the other meeting attendees. The person used skills learned in the first-aid training to eventually ask whether the person was considering taking their own life.

“It ended up that the person had lost a job, and it was the anniversary of a child’s death, and that person very definitely had a plan for taking their own life,” Johnson said.

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who represents Lawrence and the 2nd Congressional District, was one of the lead sponsors on the $15 million funding request. Jenkins, a Republican, teamed up with Rep. Ron Barber — the Arizona Democrat who was on the staff of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, when she was seriously injured in an Arizona shooting — to champion the legislation.

“Helping folks have better access to mental health resources they need to care for their loved ones is an issue I am passionate about and have championed over the past decade,” Jenkins said in a release. “Instead of Congress just talking about this issue as a tragedy, I am extremely pleased action is being taken to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Johnson said Jenkins attended a portion of a mental health first-aid class at Bert Nash in recent months, and the congresswoman also invited Johnson to serve as one of four mental health leaders from the across the country to testify before Congress on the program.

Johnson said the mental health program also gained momentum after President Obama began speaking of the program following the elementary school shootings at Newtown, Conn., in late 2012.

“The program has had bipartisan support, which certainly bucks the image we have of Washington, D.C., right now,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Bert Nash is expected to receive a portion of the $15 million in funding to expand the first-aid program in Lawrence. He said the center hopes to hire a full-time employee to provide the mental health first-aid training. Currently, Bert Nash employees who have other duties at the center provide the training.