For Julia Gaughan, new role combines 2 passions: mental health and training

Julia Gaughan was looking on the Bert Nash Center website for information about upcoming dates for Mental Health First Aid classes when something caught her eye.

A job listing for a new position — Mental Health First Aid training supervisor.

“I read through the job description and I thought, ‘I don’t have all of those qualifications,'” Gaughan said.

But the more she thought about it, she thought she would be a good fit.

“I facilitate groups all the time, and training is what I do,” Gaughan said.

A lawyer by trade, Gaughan most recently served as an advocate with the Willow Domestic Violence Center, where she did education and outreach programs in addition to supporting survivors through the HOPEworks Program.

When considering the Mental Health First Aid position, Gaughan talked to some people about whether she should apply, and their responses were all the same: She should do it.

She did, and she got the job.

Gaughan started her new position April 16. As the Mental Health First Aid supervisor, she will serve as the primary trainer as well as supervise the other trainers and help recruit potential new trainers.

“I’m so excited about this role,” she said. “Mental health and training are two things I’m very passionate about.”

Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour training course, builds mental health literacy, helping people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness. Just like CPR training helps a layperson with no medical training learn life-saving skills, Mental Health First Aid helps a person with no clinical background learn how to intervene when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, such as contemplating suicide.

Bert Nash has been one of the nation’s leaders in offering Mental Health First Aid training. In 2008, Bert Nash was one of seven pilot sites across the country chosen to provide Mental Health First Aid training. Since then, almost 2,000 Douglas County residents have received the training, including law enforcement personnel, University of Kansas faculty and staff, and Leadership Lawrence classes. Nationwide, more than 1 million people have been trained.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) has championed mental health legislation and Mental Health First Aid training.

“Kansas has been a leader in Mental Health First Aid, which is something we should all be proud of,” Jenkins said. “The Bert Nash Mental Health Center is on the cutting edge of extending our mental health safety net to meet the needs of more Kansans. The center offers invaluable resources and has worked tirelessly to implement Mental Health First Aid training. Thanks to their efforts, those with mental health issues will be able to receive the help they need most.”

Former Bert Nash CEO David Johnson, who retired in May 2017, along with former Bert Nash COO Patricia Roach Smith, was one of the first certified trainers in Mental Health First Aid in the nation. The training has long been a passion of his, and now it’s part of his legacy. In honor of Johnson’s commitment to the training, an endowment fund was started in his name to create and sustain a permanent Mental Health First Aid instructor/coordinator position on the Bert Nash staff. Gaughan is the first person to hold that position.

“It’s an honor,” Gaughan said. “I’m excited for Dave to see what is happening with his dream of having a full-time Mental Health First Aid trainer. This is his legacy. We want to increase the number of people in the community who are trained in Mental Health First Aid.”

May is Mental Health Month, and a Mental Health First Aid one-day public course will be offered from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 30 at Maceli’s Banquet Hall, 1031 New Hampshire St.

Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour training to teach participants how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The course helps trainees identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The cost is $30 per person to cover materials. Register and pay online at or email Space is limited.

Johnson said he couldn’t be more pleased that Gaughan is Bert Nash’s first full-time Mental Health First Aid trainer.

“I am humbled by the support of donors to endow my wish for Mental Health First Aid to have sustainable funding. This announcement fulfills that wish. My entire career I was lucky to have colleagues who were the perfect person for their jobs. I can’t think of a better individual for this role. Mental Health First Aiders save lives, and Julia relates powerfully to that message,” Johnson said.

Johnson played a role in Gaughan’s own recovery story. Her husband, Mike, a Douglas County commissioner, reached out to Johnson in 2015 when Julia was having a mental health crisis. After a short hospital stay, she began receiving services at the Bert Nash Center for anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. The help she received at Bert Nash put her on the path to recovery.

“When I was first in recovery, after being hospitalized, I didn’t want to hear anyone talk about suicide or anyone’s attempts or completion,” Gaughan said. “I was so worried that somehow hearing that would put more ideas in my head. But I know now that’s not true. It’s better to talk about suicide prevention and awareness.”

Mental Health First Aid training starts with asking the big question. Are you thinking about killing yourself? Do you have a plan? And then teaching people the follow-up questions to ask, and if the situation is serious enough, how to be proactive and get someone the help they need.

“Mental Health First Aid is about empowering people,” Gaughan said. “You don’t have to be a psychologist; you don’t have to be a therapist. I think sometimes people get so worried that they are going to do something wrong or say something wrong, so they don’t do anything. This flips the script. This isn’t asking people to take on a role they are uncomfortable with. This is about what you do when you see a fire; you call 911. You just do what needs to be done in the moment to help that person get to the professionals. Mental Health First Aid training gives people the skills to help them feel more confident to respond when someone is having a mental health crisis and get them the help they need. It can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Gaughan has been open about her own mental health issues. She writes a blog, where she regularly talks about her experience with mental illness. She also gave a testimonial at the Celebrate Bert Nash breakfast last fall, and her story was featured in the 2017 Bert Nash annual report and recently shared on social media.

“People have told me, ‘You’re so brave for sharing your story,’ but I’m not the only one. Lots of people have shared their stories,” Gaughan said. “My own experience is a way to let people know you can have a mental illness and you can recover. It’s important to let people know you can have depression and anxiety issues and still participate in the community. Just like if you have a broken leg, you don’t all of a sudden disappear. Maybe you don’t walk around on your broken leg for a while, but you’re still participating in life.”

When Gaughan was hired for the Mental Health First Aid training supervisor position at Bert Nash, her husband asked her how she would feel about working at a place where she received services.

“Honestly, I had no initial worries about that,” she said. “I think that just speaks to Bert Nash and the kind of environment it is.”

— Jeff Burkhead is the communications specialist at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.


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