An intelligent person would’ve stopped driving, but that I am not, so I growled up and down the back roads for the better part of a week. Of course the car had other ideas.
On foot, too, something similar can happen, though that distinct sound is usually uttered in four letter increments. Injury—running’s evil twin. A pulled hamstring, foot fracture, ankle sprain, shin splints, sore knees are all common, as well as the hard to pronounce ones, like iliotibial band syndrome, colloquially referred to as ITBS.
And while “No pain, no gain” may be an age old battle cry for the über-motivated, there are times when exercising through injury is not only counterproductive but also dangerous. Runner’s World UK author Patrick Milroy reminds us that we must “learn to recognize [our] own body’s signs of pain,” for pain tolerance is as individual as the cause of such pain. Foot numbness, for example, could be either a too-tight shoe or a stress fracture, both of which require a drastically different response.
Not all aches are bad, however. Lactic acid is likely to blame for those lumbering legs, and low grade inflammation can make rusty hinges of knee joints. In these cases, light exercise may help restore some mobility. When approaching what could be, might be, sure seems like injury, Milroy suggests an acronym: RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). And “if the pain hasn’t disappeared the next day, don’t try to run on it.” A doctor’s opinion may be necessary.
For most minor injuries, RICE is simple, practical advice. In fact, the mnemonic device is one of many under the umbrella of first aid. ABC (Airway, Breathing, Circulation) and HEAD (History, Examination, Action, Documentation) stripe my memory like an ‘80s era public service announcement--The More You Know! But behind the goofy acronyms and stately abbreviations are enumerated procedures that, however recollected, invoke step-by-step protocols that could save a life. Take ABC, for example: when treating an unresponsive individual, we must check (1) his or her airway for obstruction, followed by (2) the lungs for breathing, and finally (3) the carotid artery for circulation, i.e., a pulse. Jumbled, the mandates make little sense. Why perform external chest compressions if there is no respiration to oxygenate the blood? Why administer mouth-to-mouth if the individual’s airway is occluded?
ABC, HEAD, RICE, and myriad others, well-attend physical trauma, though what if that shrill engine sound comes from not the body but rather the enigmatic, oft-misunderstood reaches of our mind? Surely similar protocols do exist.
Thanks to the National Council for Behavioral Health, the answer is an emphatic YES: Mental Health First Aid.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a nationwide 8-hour education program that in ten short years boasts more than 1 million trainees. Topics of the intensive course include identifying “common risk factors and warning sign of specific types of illnesses, like anxiety, depression, substance use, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.” MHFA participants are taught to engage a five-step action plan, cleverly named ALGEE, when attempting to support someone with signs of mental illness or emotional distress:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm
- Listen nonjudgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies
A quick visit to MHFA’s website lays bare the ‘why’ behind this sweeping program: “Because we can all be more aware and more informed. Because there is a suicide every 12.8 minutes. Because sometimes people don’t know how to ask for help.” Three insightful, albeit eye-opening statements, though for me the last one arouses the most empathy. It brings to mind the heart wrenching story of a Golden Gate Bridge “Jumper” whose suicide note read, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”
To think, even the briefest human kindness could’ve saved his life.
With that story come others, anecdotal, however, less doleful. They are from my own upbringing. Me, a toe-headed toddler reaching for a floating ball and nearly drowning. Adolescent now and lost in the woods, determined to find my way home. Just out of high school, rattling a fire engine red Saturn SC Coupe to pieces because I didn’t know who or how to ask for help. To this day I’d rather peruse a grocery store for hours than inquire where the filo dough is. And if layered pastry has me swallowing my pride, consider what it must be like when mental illness is involved. Not to mention the accompanying stigma—my goodness! A barricade beyond imagination.
Of course, being part of any solution can mean many things. With regard to mental illness, it means learning to recognize the signs. It means taking what steps we can, carefully, thoughtfully. Oftentimes it means asking for help in order to help.
Whatever the circumstance, whether it’s ABC, RICE, or ALGEE, a silly mnemonic device could make the difference. Think of it as that single smile we all wish we could have bestowed.