What is Involuntary Commitment?


Involuntary commitment, civil commitment, or involuntary hospitalisation (also known informally as sectioning or being sectioned in some jurisdictions, such as the UK) is a legal process through which an individual who is deemed by a qualified agent to have symptoms of severe mental disorder is detained in a psychiatric hospital (inpatient) where they can be treated involuntarily. This treatment may involve the administration of psychoactive drugs, including involuntary administration. In many jurisdictions, people diagnosed with mental health disorders can also be forced to undergo treatment while in the community; this is sometimes referred to as outpatient commitment and shares legal processes with commitment.

Refer to Voluntary Commitment.

Criteria for civil commitment are established by laws which vary between nations. Commitment proceedings often follow a period of emergency hospitalisation, during which an individual with acute psychiatric symptoms is confined for a relatively short duration (e.g. 72 hours) in a treatment facility for evaluation and stabilisation by mental health professionals who may then determine whether further civil commitment is appropriate or necessary. Civil commitment procedures may take place in a court or only involve physicians. If commitment does not involve a court there is normally an appeal process that does involve the judiciary in some capacity, though potentially through a specialist court.

Historically, until the mid-1960s in most jurisdictions in the US, all committals to public psychiatric facilities and most committals to private ones were involuntary. Since then, there have been alternating trends towards the abolition or substantial reduction of involuntary commitment, a trend known as “deinstitutionalisation”. In many currents, individuals can voluntarily admit themselves to a mental health hospital and may have more rights than those who are involuntarily committed. This practice is referred to as voluntary commitment.

In the United States, an indefinite form of commitment is applied to people convicted of some sexual offences.


For most jurisdictions, involuntary commitment is applied to individuals believed to be experiencing a mental illness that impairs their ability to reason to such an extent that the agents of the law, state, or courts determine that decisions will be made for the individual under a legal framework. In some jurisdictions, this is a proceeding distinct from being found incompetent. Involuntary commitment is used in some degree for each of the following although different jurisdictions have different criteria. Some jurisdictions limit involuntary treatment to individuals who meet statutory criteria for presenting a danger to self or others. Other jurisdictions have broader criteria. The legal process by which commitment takes place varies between jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions have a formal court hearing where testimony and other evidence may also be submitted where subject of the hearing is typically entitled to legal counsel and may challenge a commitment order through habeas corpus. Other jurisdictions have delegated these power to physicians, though may provide an appeal process that involves the judiciary but may also involve physicians. For example in the UK a mental health tribunal consists of a judge, a medical member, and a lay representative.

First Aid

Training is gradually becoming available in mental health first aid to equip community members such as teachers, school administrators, police officers, and medical workers with training in recognising, and authority in managing, situations where involuntary evaluations of behaviour are applicable under law. The extension of first aid training to cover mental health problems and crises is a quite recent development. A mental health first aid training course was developed in Australia in 2001 and has been found to improve assistance provided to persons with an alleged mental illness or mental health crisis. This form of training has now spread to a number of other countries (Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Singapore, Scotland, England, Wales, and the United States). Mental health triage may be used in an emergency room to make a determination about potential risk and apply treatment protocols.


Observation is sometimes used to determine whether a person warrants involuntary commitment. It is not always clear on a relatively brief examination whether a person should be committed.

Containment of Danger

Refer to Obligatory Dangerousness Criterion.

Austria, Belgium, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Russia, Taiwan, Ontario (Canada), and the United States have adopted commitment criteria based on the presumed danger of the defendant to self or to others.

People with suicidal thoughts may act on these impulses and harm or kill themselves.

People with psychosis are occasionally driven by their delusions or hallucinations to harm themselves or others. Research has found that those who suffer from schizophrenia are between 3.4 and 7.4 times more likely to engage in violent behaviour than members of the general public. However, because other confounding factors such as childhood adversity and poverty are correlated with both schizophrenia and violence it can be difficult to determine whether this effect is due to schizophrenia or other factors. In an attempt to avoid these confounding factors, researchers have tried comparing the rates of violence amongst people diagnosed with schizophrenia to their siblings in a similar manner to twin studies. In these studies people with schizophrenia are found to be between 1.3 and 1.8 times more likely to engage in violent behaviour.

People with certain types of personality disorders can occasionally present a danger to themselves or others.

This concern has found expression in the standards for involuntary commitment in every US state and in other countries as the danger to self or others standard, sometimes supplemented by the requirement that the danger be imminent. In some jurisdictions, the danger to self or others standard has been broadened in recent years to include need-for-treatment criteria such as “gravely disabled”.


Refer to Deinstitutionalisation.

Starting in the 1960s, there has been a worldwide trend toward moving psychiatric patients from hospital settings to less restricting settings in the community, a shift known as deinstitutionalisation. Because the shift was typically not accompanied by a commensurate development of community-based services, critics say that deinstitutionalisation has led to large numbers of people who would once have been inpatients as instead being incarcerated or becoming homeless. In some jurisdictions, laws authorising court-ordered outpatient treatment have been passed in an effort to compel individuals with chronic, untreated severe mental illness to take psychiatric medication while living outside the hospital (e.g. Laura’s Law and Kendra’s Law).

Before the 1960s deinstitutionalisation there were earlier efforts to free psychiatric patients. Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) ordered the removal of chains from patients.

In a study of 269 patients from Vermont State Hospital done by Courtenay M. Harding and associates, about two-thirds of the ex-patients did well after deinstitutionalisation.

Around the World


In 1838, France enacted a law to regulate both the admissions into asylums and asylum services across the country. Édouard Séguin developed a systematic approach for training individuals with mental deficiencies, and, in 1839, he opened the first school for the intellectually disabled. His method of treatment was based on the idea that the intellectually disabled did not suffer from disease.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, provision for the care of the mentally ill began in the early 19th century with a large state-led effort. Public mental asylums were established in Britain after the passing of the 1808 County Asylums Act. This empowered magistrates to build rate-supported asylums in every county to house the many ‘pauper lunatics’. Nine counties first applied, and the first public asylum opened in 1812 in Nottinghamshire. Parliamentary Committees were established to investigate abuses at private madhouses like Bethlem Hospital – its officers were eventually dismissed and national attention was focused on the routine use of bars, chains and handcuffs and the filthy conditions the inmates lived in. However, it was not until 1828 that the newly appointed Commissioners in Lunacy were empowered to license and supervise private asylums.

The Lunacy Act 1845 was an important landmark in the treatment of the mentally ill, as it explicitly changed the status of mentally ill people to patients who required treatment. The Act created the Lunacy Commission, headed by Lord Shaftesbury, to focus on lunacy legislation reform. The commission was made up of eleven Metropolitan Commissioners who were required to carry out the provisions of the Act; the compulsory construction of asylums in every county, with regular inspections on behalf of the Home Secretary. All asylums were required to have written regulations and to have a resident qualified physician. A national body for asylum superintendents – the Medico-Psychological Association – was established in 1866 under the Presidency of William A. F. Browne, although the body appeared in an earlier form in 1841.

At the turn of the century, England and France combined had only a few hundred individuals in asylums. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, this number had risen to the hundreds of thousands. However, the idea that mental illness could be ameliorated through institutionalisation was soon disappointed. Psychiatrists were pressured by an ever-increasing patient population. The average number of patients in asylums kept on growing. Asylums were quickly becoming almost indistinguishable from custodial institutions, and the reputation of psychiatry in the medical world had hit an extreme low.

United States

In the United States, the erection of state asylums began with the first law for the creation of one in New York, passed in 1842. The Utica State Hospital was opened approximately in 1850. The creation of this hospital, as of many others, was largely the work of Dorothea Lynde Dix, whose philanthropic efforts extended over many states, and in Europe as far as Constantinople. Many state hospitals in the United States were built in the 1850s and 1860s on the Kirkbride Plan, an architectural style meant to have curative effect.

In the United States and most other developed societies, severe restrictions have been placed on the circumstances under which a person may be committed or treated against their will as such actions have been ruled by the United States Supreme Court and other national legislative bodies as a violation of civil rights and/or human rights (e.g. O’Connor v. Donaldson). Thus a person is rarely committed against their will and it is illegal for a person to be committed for an indefinite period of time.

United Nations

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/119, “Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care“, is a non-binding resolution advocating certain broadly drawn procedures for the carrying out of involuntary commitment. These principles have been used in many countries where local laws have been revised or new ones implemented. The UN runs programmes in some countries to assist in this process.


The dangers of institutions were chronicled and criticized by reformers almost since their foundation. Charles Dickens was an outspoken and high-profile early critic, and several of his novels, in particular Oliver Twist and Hard Times demonstrate his insight into the damage that institutions can do to human beings.

Enoch Powell, when Minister for Health in the early 1960s, was a later opponent who was appalled by what he witnessed on his visits to the asylums, and his famous “water tower” speech in 1961 called for the closure of all NHS asylums and their replacement by wards in general hospitals:

“There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defenses which we have to storm.”

Scandal after scandal followed, with many high-profile public inquiries. These involved the exposure of abuses such as unscientific surgical techniques such as lobotomy and the widespread neglect and abuse of vulnerable patients in the US and Europe. The growing anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s and 1970s led in Italy to the first successful legislative challenge to the authority of the mental institutions, culminating in their closure.

During the 1970s and 1990s the hospital population started to fall rapidly, mainly because of the deaths of long-term inmates. Significant efforts were made to re-house large numbers of former residents in a variety of suitable or otherwise alternative accommodation. The first 1,000+ bed hospital to close was Darenth Park Hospital in Kent, swiftly followed by many more across the UK. The haste of these closures, driven by the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, led to considerable criticism in the press, as some individuals slipped through the net into homelessness or were discharged to poor quality private sector mini-institutions.

Wrongful Involuntary Commitment

Mental health professionals have, on occasion, wrongfully deemed individuals to have symptoms of a mental disorder, and thereby commit the individual for treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Claims of wrongful commitment are a common theme in the anti-psychiatry movement.

In 1860, the case of Elizabeth Packard, who was wrongfully committed that year and filed a lawsuit and won thereafter, highlighted the issue of wrongful involuntary commitment. In 1887, investigative journalist Nellie Bly went undercover at an asylum in New York City to expose the terrible conditions that mental patients at the time had to deal with. She published her findings and experiences as articles in New York World, and later made the articles into one book called Ten Days in a Mad-House.

In the first half of the twentieth century there were a few high-profile cases of wrongful commitment based on racism or punishment for political dissenters. In the former Soviet Union, psychiatric hospitals were used as prisons to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society. British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote Every Good Boy Deserves Favour about the relationship between a patient and his doctor in one of these hospitals. Stoppard was inspired by a meeting with a Russian exile. In 1927, after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States, demonstrator Aurora D’Angelo was sent to a mental health facility for psychiatric evaluation after she participated in a rally in support of the anarchists. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s in Canada, 20,000 Canadian children, called the Duplessis orphans, were wrongfully certified as being mentally ill and as a result were wrongfully committed to psychiatric institutions where they were forced to take psychiatric medication that they did not need, and were abused. They were named after Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec at the time, who deliberately committed these children to in order to misappropriate additional subsidies from the federal government. Decades later in the 1990s, several of the orphans sued Quebec and the Catholic Church for the abuse and wrongdoing. In 1958, black pastor and activist Clennon Washington King Jr. tried enrolling at the University of Mississippi, which at the time was white, for summer classes; the local police secretly arrested and involuntarily committed him to a mental hospital for 12 days.

Patients are able to sue if they believe that they have been wrongfully committed. In one instance, Junius Wilson, an African American man, was committed to Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1925 for an alleged crime without a trial or conviction. He was castrated. He continued to be held at Cherry Hospital for the next 67 years of his life. It turned out he was deaf rather than mentally ill.

In many American states sex offenders who have completed a period of incarceration can be civilly committed to a mental institution based on a finding of dangerousness due to a mental disorder. Although the United States Supreme Court determined that this practice does not constitute double jeopardy, organisations such as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) strongly oppose the practice. The Task Force on Sexually Dangerous Offenders, a component of APA’s Council on Psychiatry and Law, reported that “in the opinion of the task force, sexual predator commitment laws represent a serious assault on the integrity of psychiatry, particularly with regard to defining mental illness and the clinical conditions for compulsory treatment. Moreover, by bending civil commitment to serve essentially non-medical purposes, statutes threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the medical model of commitment.”

What is Psychological First Aid?


Psychological first aid (PFA) is a technique designed to reduce the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was developed by the National Centre for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (NC-PTSD), a section of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2006. It has been spread by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), the American Psychological Association (APA) and many others. It was developed in a two-day intensive collaboration, involving more than 25 disaster mental health researchers, an online survey of the first cohort that used PFA and repeated reviews of the draft.

Refer to Crisis Intervention and Mental health First Aid.


According to the NC-PTSD, psychological first aid is an evidence-informed modular approach for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of disaster and terrorism to reduce initial distress and to foster short and long-term adaptive functioning. It was used by non-mental health experts, such as responders and volunteers. Other characteristics include non-intrusive pragmatic care and assessing needs. PFA does not necessarily involve discussion of the traumatic event. Just like physical first aid, psychological first aid focuses on providing effective initial support to individuals in distress.


  • Protecting from further harm.
  • Opportunity to talk without pressure.
  • Active listening.
  • Compassion.
  • Addressing and acknowledging concerns.
  • Discussing coping strategies.
  • Social support.
  • Offer to return to talk.
  • Referral.


  • Contact and engagement.
  • Safety and comfort.
  • Stabilization.
  • Information gathering.
  • Practical assistance.
  • Connection with social supports.
  • Coping information.
  • Linkage with services.

Brief History

Before PFA, there was a procedure known as debriefing. It was intended to reduce the incidences of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a major disaster. PTSD is now widely known to be debilitating; sufferers experience avoidance, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and numbness. Debriefing procedures were made a requirement after a disaster, with a desire to prevent people from developing PTSD. The idea behind it was to promote emotional processing by encouraging recollection of the event. Debriefing has origins with the military, where sessions were intended to boost morale and reduce distress after a mission. Debriefing was done in a single session with seven stages: introduction, facts, thoughts and impressions, emotional reactions, normalisation, planning for future, and disengagement.

Debriefing was found to be at best, ineffective, and at worst, harmful. There are several theories as to why debriefing increased incidents of PTSD. First, those who were likely to develop PTSD were not helped by a single session. Second, being re-exposed too soon to the trauma could lead to retraumatisation. Exposure therapy in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) allows the person to adjust to the stimuli before slowly increasing severity. Debriefing did not allow for this. Also, normal distress was seen to be pathological after a debriefing and those who had been through a trauma thought they had a mental disorder because they were upset. Debriefing assumes that everyone reacts the same way to a trauma, and anyone who deviates from that path, is pathological. But there are many ways to cope with a trauma, especially so soon after it happens.

PFA seems to address many of the issues in debriefing. It is not compulsory and can be done in multiple sessions and links those who need more help to services. It deals with practical issues which are often more pressing and create stress. It also improves self efficacy by letting people cope their own way. PFA has attempted to be culturally sensitive, but whether it is or not has not been shown. However, a drawback is the lack of empirical evidence. While it is based on research, it is not proven by research. Like the debriefing method, it has become widely popular without testing.

Today, PFA has been widely used not just for crisis intervention for natural disasters, but also personal crises such as when individuals face traumatic losses of loved ones or pets, or when organisations go through critical incidents such as the suicide or death of a colleague.

Overview of Mental Health First Aid


Mental health first aid is a training programme that teaches members of the public how to help a person developing a mental health problem (including a substance use problem), experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. Like traditional first aid, mental health first aid does not teach people to treat or diagnose mental health or substance use conditions. Instead, the training teaches people how to offer initial support until appropriate professional help is received or until the crisis resolves.

While first aid for physical health crises is a familiar notion in developed countries, conventional first aid training has not generally incorporated mental health problems.

Refer to Crisis Intervention and Psychological First Aid.


Mental health problems are common in the community, so members of the public are likely to have close contact with people affected. However, many people are not well informed about how to recognise mental health problems, how to provide support and what are the best treatments and services available. Furthermore, many people developing mental disorders do not get professional help or delay getting professional help Someone in their social network who is informed about the options available for professional help can assist the person to get appropriate help. In mental health crises, such as a person feeling suicidal, deliberately harming themselves, having a panic attack or being acutely psychotic, someone with appropriate mental health first aid skills can reduce the risk of the person coming to harm.

There is also stigma and discrimination against people with mental health problems, which may be reduced by improving public understanding of their experiences.

Brief History

The Mental Health First Aid Programme was developed in Australia by Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm in 2000. Since 2003, this Mental Health First Aid Programme has spread to a number of other countries (Bermuda, Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, United States, United Arab Emirates, Wales). By 2019, over 3 million people had been trained in mental health first aid worldwide.

Research on Mental Health First Aid Training

A number of studies have been carried out showing the people who are trained in mental health first aid showed improved knowledge, confidence, attitudes and helping behaviour. A meta-analysis of data from 15 evaluation studies concluded that mental health first aid training “increases participants’ knowledge regarding mental health, decreases their negative attitudes, and increases supportive behaviours toward individuals with mental health problems”.

There has been research to develop international guidelines on the best strategies for mental health first aid. Mental health first aid training has been included in the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Registry of Evidence-based Programmes and Practices.

By Country


In Australia, mental health first aid training is run by the not-for-profit charity Mental Health First Aid International (trading as Mental Health First Aid Australia). A range of training courses are offered:

  • Standard Mental Health First Aid is a 12-hour face-to-face course for adults to learn to assist other adults.
    • Culturally adapted versions of this course are available for Chinese and Vietnamese Australians.
    • eLearning and blended versions of the Standard course have been tailored for a range of professional groups, including pharmacists, the legal profession, financial counsellors, medical students and nursing students.
  • Youth Mental Health First Aid is a 14-hour face-to-face course for adults to learn to assist adolescents.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid is a 14-hour face-to-face culturally adapted course for adults to learn to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults.
    • It is run by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander instructors.
  • Teen Mental Health First Aid is a 3.5-hour classroom-based course that teaches high school students in years 10-12 how to provide mental health first aid to their friends.
  • Older Person Mental Health First Aid is a 12-hour face-to-face course for adults to learn to assist people aged 65 and over.

By 2015, Mental Health First Aid training had been received by over 350,000 people, which is more than 2% of the Australian adult population.

Mental health first aid training programmes in Australia have won a number of awards for excellence including:

  • Gold Achievement Award 2007 – winner of the Mental Health Promotion Mental Illness Prevention Programme or Project category at the MHS Conference.
  • Suicide Prevention Australia – 2005 Life Award.
  • Victorian Public Health Programmes Award for Innovation, 2006.
  • Enterprise and Resourcefulness Award – NSW Aboriginal Health Awards 2010.
  • Silver Achievement Award for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programme – Mental Health Promotion or Mental Illness Prevention Programme or Project category at the MHS Conference 2010.
  • Silver Achievement Award for Youth Mental Health First Aid Programme – TheMHS, Mental Health Promotion or Mental Illness Prevention Programme Category, 2014.
  • TheMHS Medal (the top award of the Mental Health Service Awards of Australia and New Zealand which “honours a unique and inspiring contribution to Mental Health by an individual or organisation”), 2017.


Mental health first aid (MHFA) came to England in 2007 and was developed and launched under the National Institute for Mental Health in England, part of the Department of Health, as part of a national approach to improving public mental health. Mental Health First Aid England was launched as a community interest company in 2009.

MHFA England offer a range of courses:

  • Standard MHFA, a two-day course which qualifies a participant to become a Mental Health First Aider
  • Youth MHFA, a two-day course which qualifies a participant to become a Youth Mental Health First Aider.
    • This course is designed for those who are working, living or interacting with young people.
    • It was first launched in England in 2010 and revised and re-launched in October 2013.
  • Youth MHFA Schools & Colleges, a one-day course which is based on Youth MHFA and designed to fit into school training timetables.
  • Armed Forces MHFA, a two-day course which qualifies participants to become an Armed Forces Mental Health First Aider.
    • This course was designed for the whole Armed Forces community, including veterans, serving personnel and their families.
    • It was launched 2013.
  • MHFA Lite, a three-hour introductory awareness course launched which is based on the Standard MHFA course.
    • MHFA Lite was launched in 2011.
    • There is also a Lite version of the Youth MHFA course.
  • MHFA Instructor Training, a seven-day course accredited by the Royal Society for Public Health to qualify as a Mental Health First Aid instructor who can deliver one or all of the two-day courses (Standard, Youth and Armed Forces).

Since 2007, more than 114,000 Mental Health First Aiders have been trained in England and more than 1,600 people have trained as Mental Health First Aid instructors. The Department of Health encouraged all employers in England to provide mental health first aid training as one of three steps in its 2012 “No Health Without Mental Health: Implementation Framework”. In 2016 Mental Health First Aid was recommended for all workplaces by the charity Business in the Community.

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have broadly similar courses to the above.

You can find further information on the various UK courses here.


In May 2014 Saint John of God Hospital signed a Memorandum of Understanding with MHFA Australia to adapt the course for Ireland and in October 2014 Betty Kitchener came to Saint John of God Hospital to advise on the rollout of the MHFA Ireland Programme.

United States

In 2008, the National Council for Behavioural Health, in partnership with the Missouri Department of Mental Health, brought mental health first aid to the United States. Since 2008, more than 1.5 million people have been trained on the Mental Health First Aid USA course by an instructor base of more than 15,000. There are people trained in mental health first aid in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Guam. The course is offered to a variety of audiences, including hospital staff, employers and business leaders, faith communities and law enforcement.

In 2012, youth mental health first aid was introduced in the United States to prepare trainees to help youth ages 12-18 that may be developing or experiencing a mental health challenge. Specialised versions of Mental Health First Aid USA including the Veterans, Public Safety, Higher Education, Rural and Older Adults modules and a Spanish version of the Youth and Adult curriculum are also available.

Mental Health First Aid USA was included in President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence and increase access to mental health services. In 2014, Congress appropriated $15 million to SAMHSA to train teachers and school personnel in youth mental health first aid. In 2015, an additional $15 million was appropriated to support other community organizations serving youth. The Mental Health First Aid Act of 2015 (S. 711/H.R. 1877) had broad bi-partisan support and would authorise $20 million annually for training the American public. Fifteen states have made Mental Health First Aid a priority by appropriating state funds, including Texas which allocated $5 million.


Mental health first aid debuted in Canada in 2007, and has operated under the leadership of the Mental Health Commission of Canada since early 2010.

MHFA Canada offers a range of courses, which, upon completion, certify a participant in mental health first aid:

  • MHFA Basic, a two-day 12 hour course.
  • MHFA for Adults who Interact with Youth, a two-day 14 hour course.
  • MHFA Seniors, a two-day 14 hour course.
  • MHFA Veteran Community, a two-day 13 hour course.
  • MHFA Northern Peoples, a three-day 18 hour course.
  • MHFA First Nations, a three-day 20 hour course.
  • MHFA Inuit, a three-day 24 hour course.
  • MHFA Police, an eight-hour course including 15-30 minutes online.
  • MHFA Instructor Training, a course which allows the participant to become a Mental Health First Aid instructor.

Different instructor courses are required to become a MHFA Basic, Youth, Seniors, Veteran Community, First Nations or Northern Peoples instructor. The duration of these courses vary from five to six days. First Nations & Northern People versions require two instructors/facilitators to deliver the course.

Since 2007, more than 400,000 Canadians have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, and more than 1,200 people have been trained as instructors.

United Arab Emirates

Mental health first aid debuted in the UAE in December 2017. MHFA UAE operates under the leadership of the Lighthouse Centre for Wellbeing, an out-patient mental health clinic in Dubai composed of more than 25 licensed psychologists. The Lighthouse is the only accredited provider of MHFA in the UAE.

MHFA UAE offers 3 courses:

  • Adult to Adult MHFA, a 12-hour training which qualifies a participant to become a Mental Health First Aider.
    • This course is designed for those who are working, living or interacting with other adults.
  • Adult to Adolescent MHFA, a 14-hour course which qualifies a participant to become a Youth Mental Health First Aider.
    • This course is designed for those who are working, living or interacting with young people.
  • Teen to Teen MHFA, a 4-hour course which qualifies teens to become Teen Mental Health First Aiders.

What is Crisis Intervention?


Crisis intervention is a time-limited intervention with a specific psychotherapeutic approach to immediately stabilise those in crisis.

Refer to Mental Health First Aid and Psychological First Aid.


A crisis can have physical or psychological effects. Usually significant and more widespread, the latter lacks the former’s obvious signs, complicating diagnosis. Three factors define crisis: negative events, feelings of hopelessness, and unpredictable events. People who experience a crisis perceive it as a negative event that generate physical emotion, pain, or both. They also feel helpless, powerless, trapped, and a loss of control over their lives. Crisis events tend to occur suddenly and without warning, leaving little time to respond and resulting in trauma.

At a global level, when a mass trauma from an event like as a terrorist attack occurs, counsellors are trained to provide resources, coping skills, and support to clients to assist them through their crisis. Intervention often begins with an assessment. In countries such as the Czech Republic, crisis intervention is an individual therapy, usually lasting four to six weeks, and includes assistance with housing, food, and legal matters. Long waiting times for resident psychotherapists and in Germany, explicit exclusions of couples therapy and other therapies complicate implementation. In the United States, licensed professional counsellors (LPCs) provide mental health care to those in need. Licensed professional counsellors focus on psychoeducational techniques to prevent a crisis, consultation to individuals, and research effective therapeutic treatment to deal with stressful environments.


The primary goal of school-based crisis intervention is to help restore the crisis-exposed student’s basic problem-solving abilities and in doing so, to return the student to their pre-crisis levels of functioning. Crisis intervention services are indirect. People often find school psychologists working behind the scenes, ensuring that students, staff, and parents are well-positioned to realize their natural potential to overcome the crisis. School psychologists are trained professionals who meet continuing education requirements after receiving their degree. They help maintain a safe and supportive learning environment for students by working with other staff. such as school resource officers, law enforcement officers trained as informal counsellors and mentors.

At a school-based level, when a trauma occurs, like a student death, school psychologists are trained to prevent and respond to crisis through the PREPaRE Model of Crisis Response, developed by NASP. PREPaRE provides educational professionals training in roles based on their participation in school safety and crisis teams. PREPaRE is one of the first comprehensive nationally available training curriculums developed by school-based professionals with firsthand experience and formal training.


When using crisis intervention methods for the disabled individual, every effort should first be made to first find other, preventative methods, such as giving adequate physical, occupational and speech therapy, and communication aides including sign language and Augmentative Communication systems, behaviour and other plans, to first help that individual to be able to express their needs and function better. Too often, crisis intervention methods including restraining holds are used without first giving the disabled more and better therapies or educational assistance. Often school districts, for example, may use crisis prevention holds and “interventions” against disabled children without first giving services and supports: at least 75% of cases of restraint and seclusion reported to the US Department of Education in the 2011-2012 school year involved disabled children. Also, school districts hide their disabled child’s restraint or seclusion from the parents, denying the child and their family the opportunity to recover.

The US Congress has proposed legislation, such as the “Keeping All Students Safe Act”, to curtail school district use of restraint and seclusion. Even with bipartisan support, the bill has repeatedly died in committee.


The SAFER-R Model, with Roberts 7 Stage Crisis Intervention Model, is model of intervention much used by law enforcement. The model approaches crisis intervention as an instrument to help the client to achieve their baseline level of functioning from the state of crisis. This intervention model for responding to individuals in crisis consists of 5+1 stages. They are:

  • Stabilise.
  • Acknowledge.
  • Facilitate understanding.
  • Encourage adaptive coping.
  • Restore functioning or,
  • Refer.

Other models include Lerner and Shelton’s 10 step acute stress & trauma management protocol.

Critical Incident Debriefing

Critical incident debriefing is a widespread approach to counselling those in a state of crisis. This technique is done in a group setting 24-72 hours after the event occurred, and is typically a one-time meeting that lasts 3-4 hours, but can be done over numerous sessions if needed. Debriefing is a process by which facilitators describe various symptoms related PTSD and other anxiety disorders that individuals are likely to experience due to exposure to a trauma. As a group they process negative emotions surrounding the traumatic event. Each member is encouraged to continue participation in treatment so that symptoms do not worsen.

Commentators have criticised critical incident debriefing for its effectiveness on reducing harm in crisis situations. Some studies show that those exposed to debriefing are actually more likely to show symptoms of PTSD at a 13-month follow-up than those who were not exposed. Most recipients of debriefing reported that they found the intervention helpful. Based on symptoms found in those who received no treatment at all, some critics state that reported improvement is considered a misattribution, and that the progress would naturally occur without any treatment.

What is the Value of Mental Health First Aid for the UK Armed Forces?

Research Paper Title

Mental health first aid for the UK Armed Forces.


Education programmes in mental health literacy can address stigma and misunderstanding of mental health.

This study investigated self-rated differences in knowledge, attitudes and confidence around mental health issues following participation in a bespoke Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course for the Armed Forces.


The mixed methods approach comprised quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews.

A survey, administered immediately post-training (n = 602) and again at 10-months post-attendance (n = 120), asked participants to rate their knowledge, attitudes and confidence around mental health issues pre- and post-training.


Quantitative findings revealed a significant increase in knowledge, positive attitudes and confidence from the post-training survey which was sustained at 10-months follow-up.

Semi-structured telephone interviews (n = 13) were conducted at follow-up, 6-months post-attendance.

Qualitative findings revealed that participation facilitated an ‘ambassador’ type role for participants.


This study is the first to have investigated the effect of MHFA in an Armed Forces community.

Findings show participants perceived the training to increase knowledge regarding mental health and to enhance confidence and aptitude for identifying and supporting people with mental health problems.

Results suggest that such an intervention can provide support for personnel, veterans and their families, regarding mental health in Armed Forces communities.


Crone, D.M., Sarkar, M., Curran, T., Baker, C.M., Hill, D., Loughren, E.A., Dickson, T. & Parker, A. (2020) Mental health first aid for the UK Armed Forces. Health Promotion International. 35(1), pp.132-139. doi: 10.1093/heapro/day112.

Book: Community-Based Psychological First Aid

Book Title:

Community-Based Psychological First Aid: A Practical Guide to Helping Individuals and Communities during Difficult Times.

Author(s): Gerard A. Jacobs.

Year: 2016.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.


Community-Based Psychological First Aid: A Practical Guide to Helping Individuals and Communities during Difficult Times presents a practical method for helping those in need in difficult times.

No advanced training in psychology is needed to use it. Injuries from disasters, terrorist events, and civil unrest are not just physical.

These events also cause psychological trauma that can do lasting damage.

Psychological First Aid (PFA) draws on human resilience and aims to reduce stress systems and help those affected recover.

It is not professional psychotherapy, and those providing this kind of aid do not need a degree to help.

Gerard Jacobs has developed this community-based method of delivering PFA over 20 years and has taught it in over 30 countries.

Along with the easy-to-follow method, Jacobs includes examples of how this works in action in different situations, and presents scenarios to practice.

Unique in its approach of community engagement to train community members to help each other, this guide is an excellent resource for local emergency managers to engage in whole community emergency management.

The Scottish Recovery Network

The Scottish Recovery Network (SRN) has been working since 2004 to:

  • Raise awareness of recovery;
  • Develop a better understanding of the factors which help and hinder recovery; and
  • Build capacity for recovery by sharing information and supporting efforts to promote recovery.

A major part of the initial work of the SRN involved a large-scale narrative research project. As part of this project, 64 people from Scotland, who described themselves as in recovery, or having recovered from a long-term mental health problem, were interviewed.

Key findings from that research include:

  • The importance of having a positive identity focused on wellness, strengths, and recovery.
  • The need to be involved in activities which provide meaning and purpose, and to pace and control that involvement. Such activities included volunteering, paid employment, and creativity.
  • The importance of relationships based on hope, belief, and trust.
  • The need for easy access to services and treatments that are focused on recovery.

Many people described the importance of believing in the possibility of recovery. They described how taking a more optimistic approach to their illness created hope, a feeling of self-worth, and confidence. It helped them create a new identity as a person who was in recovery.

It is rare for anyone to return to the way they were before a major life event. Our experiences change us, and it is often true that people who have experienced serious and distressing life events say that in the longer term they have grown and developed through them. This is part of the recovery message. People who have had a diagnosis of serious mental health problems often report that embarking on the journey of recovery and finding ways to live fulfilling lives has enabled them to grow. Another similarly strong theme was focused around being in control and making choices.

Learning about recovery helps a mental health first-aider recognise the importance of relating to a person who is in distress or unwell as more than just an immediate crisis to be dealt with. We can help the process of recovery by speaking to the person with respect rather than talking down to them, and also to speak with hope and reassurance.

Learning about recovery can also help protect us from becoming unwell. Understanding what helps us recover is a good basis for helping our own and others’ mental health.

Recovery from Mental Health Problems

For some people mental health problems may be a ‘one off’, causing distress for a relatively short period in a person’s life. For others, mental health problems may be longer term, possibly returning at different times or causing long-term challenges. However, one thing is clear, people can and do recover from mental health problems – no matter how serious or long term they are.

Recovery is a deeply personal and individual process. For some it means getting back to ‘normal’ or back to the way things were before a period of illness. Others consider it to mean not experiencing symptoms of the illness any more. People who have had long-term problems often describe a process of growth and development, in the presence or absence of symptoms. Many people describe it as a journey in which they become active in managing and controlling their own well-being and recovery.

Recovery is a key message in Mental Health First Aid. The presence of hope and the expectation of recovery is one of the most important forms of support we can give a person with a mental health problem.

The things that help everyone recover from physical illness or painful life events are the same things that help people recover from mental illness.

From a Mental Health Perspective, What is Recovery?

Recovery is being able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by each person, in the presence or absence of symptoms.

It is about having control over your own life.

Each individual’s recovery, like their experience of mental health problems or illness, is a unique and deeply personal process.

Working with Diversity

People trained in mental health first aid are not expected to have specialist knowledge of different groups’ attitudes and beliefs about mental health.

The most important thing is to avoid making assumptions about the person to whom you are offering support.

For instance, do not assume that the person shares the same attitudes as you hold.

When suggesting that a person seeks further help, it is best to ask who they would feel most comfortable approaching rather than immediately suggesting their general practitioner (GP).

Similarly, it is best to use simple language like ‘low mood’ or ‘sadness’ rather than using terms like depression when talking about a person’s mood or feelings.

These guidelines hold true in any situation. It is always better to avoid making assumptions about another person and to check out that person’s feelings and preferences before offering advice and support.