The Case for Mental Health First Aid


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9/11 Memorial Waterfall | New York City | August 2019


Several years ago in 2011, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to travel across the Middle East with one of my BFFs. Somewhere high above the deserts of Saudi Arabia during that trip, on a budget airline from Dubai to Jordan, a fellow middle-aged male passenger had a heart attack. The flight attendants immediately took turns performing CPR on him in the aisle. We made an emergency landing in Saudi. He got off with his wife. It was the first time I had ever seen a dead body up close and personal. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it, but he could have. Even without doctors on board.


“Remember, you are not the one diagnosing the person with mental illness. You’re the first responder in case they need anything. Remember A.L.G.E.E.!”

Our instructors for our day-long Mental Health First Aid training through Thrive NYC and The New York State Department of Health would remind us throughout the day. We took turns going through what A.L.G.E.E. stood for, we went through A.L.G.E.E. for those who might have depression, psychosis, anxiety, and the list goes on; there’s an A.L.G.E.E. stuffed toy and we even did A.L.G.E.E. yoga! So, you’re probably wondering what the heck does A.L.G.E.E. stand for?

Assess for risk of suicide or harm

Listen nonjudgmentally

Give reassurance and information

Encourage appropriate professional help

Encourage self-help and support strategies


As one of the trainers read out the list of telltale signs for depression, my heart skipped several beats. Here’s why: 1) I knew I had had depression but just seeing the signs in black and white somehow made it seem more real; 2) More people around me may be suffering from mental health illness than I ever expected. 3) One of the major obstacles to getting help is stigma. The trainers broke it down this way, “Anything that gets in the way of your ability to LIVE, LOVE, LAUGH, LEARN…well that’s a mental health illness…like depression or anxiety.”



During a session where we went over what not to say to those dealing with mental health issues, I noticed people laughed uncomfortably as we went over things like “Pull yourself together,” “If I were you, I’d feel like there is no point in living too.” I felt my body slightly cringe. I know in the past, wanting to help, I’ve said something, anything to a friend who just really wanted me to do the “L” part in A.L.G.E.E. In fact, while sitting there during the training, I thought to myself, even people who aren’t dealing with mental health issues, all of us just need someone to listen nonjudgmentally, right?


Chirlane McCray is one of the most active First Ladies NYC has ever seen. She created the mental health initiative called ThriveNYC to put mental health on the map, she was voted one of Time’s 50 most influential People in Healthcare in 2018, she launched and leads NYC Unity Project, the first of its kind program to make sure LGBTQ youth are safe, amongst the many, many things she has done and continues to do to redefine what it means to be the First Lady of NYC. First Lady McCray was inspired by her own daughter’s plight with depression and substance abuse to create free mental health first aid trainings across the city like the one I attended. You can check out Chirlane McCray’s daughter, Chiara de Blasio’s heartfelt video where she talks about her struggles with depression and substance abuse and how she came out of it here. Two total badass women, if you ask me.


I walked out of the training yesterday and headed for the World Trade Center to take the Path back to New Jersey. One of the trainers had said, “You know, you don’t have to look farther than the NYC subways or streets for people dealing with mental illness of some kind…” And just as he had said, I came across one such woman upon exiting the building where the training had taken place. Rather than ignoring her, judging her, or crossing the street, I greeted her politely, did A.L.G.E.E. in my head, and went on my way.

Along the way, I got lost, and stopped at the massive waterfalls that now replace what used to be the former twin towers. I stood there in deep reflection surrounded by tourists speaking every language but English. It was almost music to my ears: more time to reflect and not focus on anything in particular. As I looked at the water, I thought of algae, organisms that generate oxygen through photosynthesis—so much oxygen in fact that they are responsible for almost half of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. I know, right?

But what if we made A.L.G.E.E. just as indispensable for all humans? And it wasn’t just people who were going through mental health issues, it was for ALL of us? Perhaps we’d have less holes to cover with waterfalls.

Love More: Mental Health First Aid Certificate in Hand! | New York City | August 2019
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