_PUBLIC HEALTH Mental Illness

_Psyche and the City

Can Philadelphia’s massive initiative to provide mental illness literacy teach our communities to be kinder?

_Nancy Epstein

Epstein is an associate professor in the School of Public Health with a decades-long history in evaluation, health advocacy and public policy.

There is a wildfire of mental health awareness and prevention spreading across the nation, and Drexel’s Nancy Epstein wants us all to help fan the flames.

One widespread program is “Mental Health First Aid,” a mental health literacy approach that was first developed in Australia in 2000. It trains people in public service roles — from librarians to public safety workers to health professionals and faith leaders — about mental illness and provides them with tools to help those in need.


“Without fail, every person I interviewed said [the training] was making a difference in their lives,” says Epstein.

Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services adopted the program in 2012 and asked Epstein to evaluate it.

In Philadelphia, more than 8,600 people have received the training, with a long-term goal to train 100,000.

“This program is happening in every state — more than 250,000 people had been trained in the United States, and Congress had funded 120 new MHFA projects around the country,” says Epstein. “This is now a ‘happening’ national public health initiative.”

As principal investigator of Philadelphia’s evaluation study, Epstein is looking at the impact of the program on people’s behavior and attitudes, with the goal of determining whether it results in the kind of early intervention that allows individuals to get help before problems escalate into addiction, self-harm or violence.

“In any publicly funded program, it’s essential to have a strong evaluation to know what’s happening,” says Epstein.

Epstein and her team have surveyed more than 800 trainees since early 2014 and though the study is still in its early stages, she says what she’s found so far is “striking.”

Seventy-two percent of those surveyed reported using what they’d learned at the training. At six months, 53 percent reported using it in the workplace, 38 percent used it to help family members, 37 percent used it to help friends, and 32 percent used it to help themselves. Fifty-one percent reported helping someone get help.

Epstein’s colleagues, Amy Carroll-Scott and Felice Le-Scherban, are currently designing additional studies of the program’s “ripple effect” across the city.