Can mental health first aid training help prevent tragedy?

Earlier this month a Wasilla man died in an Anchorage hospital hours after a state trooper-involved shooting in a quiet neighborhood in the Wasilla area.

Witness accounts report that the man, Joshua Smith, 33, was armed with a knife and appeared agitated before the confrontation with three Alaska State Troopers that ultimately led to his death. According to trooper spokesperson Megan Peters, “We encountered an adult, white male armed with a knife. When troopers attempted to talk to him, the male charged at troopers with a knife. Two troopers fired their service weapons at the man, seriously injuring him.”

It’s still early in the investigation. There are many questions and few answers.

What led Smith to act in such a way?

As reported in the Sunday edition of the Frontiersman, last week, retired Anchorage Police Department officer Wendi Shackelford and University of Alaska Anchorage Behavioral Health Training Coordinator Jill Ramsey led a couple dozen state troopers, court system staff, Mat-Su Health Services employees and emergency services personnel through two different eight-hour sessions of mental health first aid to increase understanding of how to respond to a person in crisis.

Again, the investigation is ongoing, and it’s currently unknown to the public what sparked Smith’s behavior. But regardless of what caused Smith to act in an alarming manner or what created the need for troopers to be called, Smith was a person in crisis.

At the beginning of the course, Ramsey told those attending, “It becomes important for us to be able to be individually equipped in the moment — what do you do in the moment of crisis with someone who has a mental health issue? Not who do you call, necessarily, but what do you do yourself?”

It’s hard to predict how a person would react when thrust into a situation like what happened on that Thursday evening in early June. That’s where the training comes in. Knowledge forms a foundation. The ability to handle these difficult situations is built on that foundation of knowledge.

And that’s what makes these types of training sessions so important. As said during the training, it goes beyond law enforcement. As stated in the Frontiersman coverage, if for example, a 911 call is made for a suicidal person, but no crime has been committed, a firefighter of paramedic trained in crisis intervention or mental health first aid might be able to respond in a trooper’s place.

The incident June 2, 2016, ultimately ended in tragedy. Smith is dead, and the lives of everyone else involved are forever changed.

This is not a call for judgment of the deadly forced used on June 2. That is for investigators to decide.

But the June 2 incident proves how valuable the mental health first aid sessions are, and continued training can be.

It might help prevent the next contact with someone in personal crisis from ending in tragedy.

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