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New Mercyhurst program delivers mental health first aid

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is your neighborhood making you sick?

Just as conditions within our homes can have consequences for our health, conditions in the neighborhoods surrounding our homes also can have a major health impact, especially if those neighborhoods, Erie’s among them, have become rife with violent crime.

A growing body of research shows that Americans with traumatic injuries develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder comparable to veterans of war.

“Just like veterans, civilians living in the midst of violence can suffer flashbacks, paranoia and social withdrawal, which could lead to more serious mental illness,” said David Dausey, Ph.D., dean of the School of Health Professions and Public Health at Mercyhurst University.

But help is on the way.

The Erie Regional Medical Reserve Corps, sponsored by Saint Vincent Hospital and the Mercyhurst Institute for Public Health are partnering on a local program to strengthen awareness and treatment of mental and behavioral health issues stemming from exposure to violence. The collaboration is made possible by a $15,000 Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) Challenge Award presented by the national Association of County and City Health Officials in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Beginning July 15, Thomas Cook, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health at Mercyhurst, and Eileen Zinchiak, institute program coordinator, will lead “Healing Wounds and Mending Minds,” a mental health first aid training program. They will be supported by Mercyhurst public health students. The training schedule thus far is July 15 & 16 in Mercyhurst's Sullivan Hall, Room 3; and Aug. 12 & 13 in Mercyhurst's Hirt Academic Center, Room 212. All sessions are 4 to 8:15 p.m. and are filling up quickly. More training opportunities will be offered in the fall.

Russell Bieniek, M.D., project director, Nan Jones, RN, BSN, coordinator of the Erie Regional Medical Reserve Corp, and team members will work jointly with Mercyhurst to plan, implement and evaluate the program. 

Training sessions will address the growing problem of gun-related violence in Erie neighborhoods. Locally, firearms-related hospitalizations doubled from 2007 to 2012, 40 percent among those aged 15-24, with costs exceeding $2 million, according to the institute.  

“Not only is the dollar impact large but the direct and indirect impact on the person, families and entire community is enormous and not easily measured,” commented Bieniek.

Living amid this kind of violence poses a potentially serious public health threat that can take a toll on relationships and parenting, lead to family conflict and interfere with jobs, Dausey said. Beyond the direct victims of shootings and assaults, those affected include the loved ones of survivors, who struggle to help family members cope with everything from debilitating panic attacks to unrelenting nightmares.

The free program will train participants to understand mental stress and reactions to acts of violence and trauma and how to respond to those who may need mental health services. Warning signs of substance use, depression and schizophrenia will also be taught in the eight-hour course.

The training sessions will be offered to a cross-section of professionals, including members of the Erie Regional Medical Reserve Corps and the Neighborhood Resource Organization, as well as staff of health and social service agencies, churches, community groups and local residents most impacted by violence.

The MRC Challenge Award is one of just 43 granted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials and one of only five awards to develop mental health awareness programs.

Those interested in receiving training may contact Eileen Zinchiak at the Mercyhurst Institute for Public Health, 824-3671.