When Brandi Christiansen was getting her hair done recently, she realized hairdressers know more about their customers than most people might. She also realized they might not know how to address or assist those who may be struggling with mental health disorders.
It wasn’t long after that realization when she heard about a coffee shop in Chicago, Sip of Hope, that offers to help customers with mental illness and donates all proceeds to suicide prevention.
As the director of Mental Health America of Howard County, Christiansen decided people in those professions — the ones who have captive audiences and know their customers well — need to have some type of training in dealing with customers who are showing signs of mental illness.
Now, Christiansen is putting a call out to community hairdressers, baristas, and bartenders to attend mental health first aid training.
“It’s really about awareness and just having that action plan so when it does happen you’re not scrambling. You’re ready to go. You’ve been trained. You practiced because a lot of mental health first aid is about practicing those conversations,” said Christiansen.
After getting trained as a mental health first aid instructor in August 2017, the MHA director has been training first responders in Howard County and surrounding counties on how to recognize signs of mental health disorders and how to respond in those situations.
While she said that’s necessary, first responders typically are dealing with people who already are in crises. By training people such as baristas, bartenders, and hairdressers, her hope is those professionals will be able to help their customers before they’re in crisis mode.
“It’s a practical way to stop the community from waiting until stage four to begin treatment. It’s the only illness that we wait until stage four to begin treating,” she said.
During the eight-hour training sessions, attendees learn common signs and symptoms of mental illness and substance use, how to interact with a person in crisis, how to ask questions and which questions to ask, and how to connect the person with help. The course also teaches attendees to apply the ALGEE action plan, which stands for assessing for risk of suicide or harm, listening nonjudgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging appropriate professional help, and encouraging self-help and other support strategies.
After the training sessions, Christiansen said no one will be able to diagnose mental health disorders, but they will be able to better recognize and assist a person struggling with such an issue.
And, importantly, they’re also taught how to be a friend.
“You’re taught how you can be an effective friend because a person is not necessarily going to go out and get help just because you had the conversation, but you never know when that moment of clarity or when that day is. And if you create a relationship and support, it builds that trust so that when they are ready for help you can be an ally for that,” she said.
Melissa Buffington Gallagher, Christiansen’s hairdresser who works out of Strands Salon, said she’s looking forward to participating in the training. While she’s not a psychologist or therapist and doesn’t intend to be, she said clients often see hairdressers as that, in a sense, and having skills to better address tough situations would be beneficial.
In some instances, Buffington Gallagher said she second guesses if she could have said or done more for a client who was struggling.
“People tend to sit in our chair, and they feel safe … They just start to talk, and you start to learn things about them. You become aware of some situations with them that you don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to respond. And then I always go home later, and I take those conversations and replay them. I think, ‘Oh my gosh, should I have said something more positive, more hopeful? Did I come across as caring or trying to get through the appointment and get them out the door?’ I want to take what I hear and what I do and be a positive response, and I want to do it in the right way,” she said.
In addition, hairdressers form long-term relationships with their clients, and Buffington Gallagher said she can tell when their mental or emotional state changes. Since she’s going to do her job regardless, she said she might as well have the extra layer to it with mental health training to put her in a position to better address tough situations.
In working to create the program, Christiansen also reached out to Brian Kmiecik, the general manager of Sip of Hope, to inquire about the most effective ways to equip people with mental health first aid skills and to gain a better understanding of how his coffee shop works.
Kmiecik said it was “fantastic” that Christiansen is taking steps to bring this to the Howard County community.
“It’s important to meet people where they are and not where we expect them to be,” said Kmiecik. “We encounter people in those professions almost daily, so to be able to recognize or appropriately react to someone in a mental health crisis is so important.”
Sip of Hope is a collaboration between a nonprofit called Hope for the Day and Dark Matters Coffee. The nonprofit was founded by a man named Jon Boucher who lost several family members, coworkers, and friends to suicide, according to Kmiecik.
“He was tired of not hearing people talk about why,” he said.
After partnering with Dark Matters Coffee and doing outreach programs, the next step for Boucher was to open a coffee shop. Now, Kmiecik said they’re in an even better position to help those who are struggling.
“It has allowed us to more actively engage with the community and provided a safe space for someone who may be in a rough spot and looking for someone to talk to without fear of judgment,” he said.
Christiansen hopes to create some of those safe spaces now in Howard County. She hopes to create stickers that businesses can put in their windows to indicate that at least one of their employees have been trained in mental health first aid and to let people know it’s a judgment-free zone.
“We’re hoping to create an entire community where people will know, ‘This is a safe place where I can go, and someone has been trained in mental health first aid.’ So instead of waiting until we meet people in a crisis, we’re offering an opportunity for them to say, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll just go in there and see what this about,’” she said.
A planning committee currently is working to schedule the training. Those who are interested in attending are encouraged to call MHA at 765-459-0309.