Guest opinion: Dialogue, knowledge about mental illness can help us heal after Jan. 8

Like many Tucsonans, staff at Community Partnership of Southern Arizona were shocked and saddened by the shooting rampage on Jan. 8. Many of us knew someone who was killed or injured in the shooting.

We also were given the opportunity to help the community take its first steps toward healing, as CPSA was designated by state and county government to be the lead agency dealing with mental health and trauma issues arising from the tragedy.

As the administrator for public behavioral health care services in Pima County for 15 years, CPSA was able to quickly mobilize support for community members dealing with strong emotions after the tragedy, via a “warm line” and support groups. We also reached out to groups closely involved with the victims, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ synagogue, Congregation Chaverim.

As the public speculated on the mental health of the accused gunman, we attended to our own members, some of whom felt threatened by the angry and disparaging comments about people with mental illness.

And we began thinking about the long-term effects and issues raised by this tragedy. We determined that CPSA could best contribute to this community’s restoration by encouraging dialogue and providing education about mental illness, working to elevate it to a [recognized] public health issue.

The tragedy opened a door of opportunity to talk about mental health care and treatment, and the good work of the system of care in Arizona. Public awareness has focused, in an unprecedented way, on the challenges of mental illness.

One way CPSA has responded is by offering community members the tools to recognize and help someone who may have a mental illness.

With support from the Arizona Department of Health Services/Division of Behavioral Health Services and the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, CPSA created an initiative to train individuals in Mental Health First Aid. MHFA trains non-professionals to recognize possible signs of a mental illness or substance abuse crisis and know how to get help.

In early March, CPSA hosted 35 people from across Arizona for MHFA instructor training. Individuals certified as instructors are bringing this critical training back to their communities.

CPSA also began offering two 12-hour MHFA trainings each month for the general public, which will continue while demand remains high. The response has been outstanding: The trainings have filled quickly with individuals representing religious organizations, schools and colleges, Native American tribes, military and veterans’ groups, the criminal justice system, the media and medical professionals, among others. So far, CPSA has trained 55 people in Pima County as “first aiders.”

Many community members expressed the desire to do something positive in the wake of the tragedy. These trainings have helped meet that need through knowledge and empowerment.

CPSA also has joined the Schorr family in encouraging community dialogue about mental illness. This year the Schorr Family Award for increasing understanding of mental illness will expand to include a community forum, open to the public, on April 27 at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus.

We also wanted to honor Gabe Zimmerman, a good friend to CPSA and strong advocate for public behavioral health care. CPSA contributed $100,000 for an endowed scholarship in Gabe’s name at the Arizona State University School of Social Work’s Tucson Component. This is a way to extend Gabe’s impact in our community, by making sure his work continues through the new social workers trained under this scholarship.

I also was pleased to be invited to serve on the board of the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding established by Ron Barber and his family. The fund will support programs that discourage bullying in schools and help increase understanding of mental illness.

Without these and other efforts in the Tucson community, the conversation about mental illness after Jan. 8 could have been entirely negative, and fear and misunderstanding even more entrenched. Turning this tragedy into new knowledge, positive energy and understanding is one of the best outcomes we could achieve.

Neal Cash is president and CEO of CPSA. For more information on the activities mentioned above, go to the CPSA website, www.cpsa-rbha.org.