Awesome Foundation Grant Award Winner: Mental Health First Aid

Written by: Brandi Malarkey

Does it hurt? Are you okay? Should we get you to a doctor?

These phrases are almost automatic when someone stumbles, falls or otherwise suffers a physical injury. Most people don’t hesitate to reach out, offer assistance or ask how you are doing. Yet when someone is struggling mentally or emotionally, a majority of Americans pause—it feels uncomfortable to inquire or offer support. Brenda Koneczny, licensed professional counselor, assistant professor of psychology at MSUM and Nationally Certified Mental Health First Aid trainer, is one of many who are working to change that.

“Most people don’t have problems talking about medical issues. We ask about people’s broken arms or legs, cold and flu symptoms or eye infections. People share what is happening and what they are doing to treat it. For the most part, people are comfortable having those conversations,” Brenda said. “However, if someone seems sad more often than usual, withdrawn or experienced a loss or negative life event such as job loss, they may experience feelings of worthlessness, lack of motivation or lack of concentration. They may have a change in appearance and affect, or maybe have had thoughts about suicide.

A lot of people don’t know what to say. When one in five adults in the United States is likely to experience a mental, emotional or behavioral disruption in their lives it means these things are normal and common. We should be talking about this, too. A lot of people want to be helpful, but just don’t feel equipped. The goal is to help provide tools to the everyday person to help start conversations through Mental First Aid training.”

Though Brenda is a professional counselor herself, she says the goal of the evidence-based training isn’t to help anyone become a counselor or provide treatment, but rather provide individuals with the ability to start conversations with the people in their lives.

“Understanding some common signs of mental, emotional or behavioral distress is a place to start. If you notice someone not keeping up their hygiene as well as they typically do, or not being as social or acting more quiet than is usual, being able to ask what you can do for them, being able to understand what resources are available in your community and being able to share those resources with that person is huge,” Brenda said. “I think it’s quite common for people to say, ‘Things happen for a reason. It’s not worth worrying about. You’ll get through this.’ Those statements help us feel optimistic and maybe even lighten the mood, but don’t benefit the person feeling down, anxious or overwhelmed who may not be sure they will get through it or even believe that support is there.”

“Really trying to acknowledge the signs and the symptoms, validating how a person is feeling is key. It’s offering validation that it’s OK to be feeling how you are, but that it’s also OK to get support from friends, family, community members, tribal leaders and whoever is important within your personal life and communities,” Brenda said. “But then it’s also OK to seek professional care as well. The goal is to provide hope with factual information, resources or ideas for resources, and normalize these conversations so that people feel comfortable helping a loved one, an acquaintance or a coworker.”

Last year, the MSUM Psychology Club and Psi Chi organization coordinated a free Mental Health First Aid Certification Training for up to 25 members with a trainer who was willing to offset the fees. Over 34 students signed up to become certified with more asking to be notified of future opportunities. Over the summer, Brenda and others on campus were given an opportunity to become Mental Health First Aid Trainers. With her co-trainers, Brenda will be able to help provide free MHFA training to MSUM students through 2023 through a grant provided from the MinnState system as well as a grant from Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology.

With the success of the trainings on campus, Brenda was inspired to take the trainings out into the community. With the aid of a grant from the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation, who named her their October 2022 grantee, she will soon be offering free trainings to community volunteers.

“Before the pandemic, I volunteered with the Heart-n-Soul Community Café (the September 2016 Awesome Foundation grantee),” Brenda said. “I admire their work, and that of organizations like the Community Culinary Corps Project. They are providing an essential service—food with dignity, no strings attached. When I volunteered, I noticed a pattern of regular participants that would look forward to the cafe being open because it might be that one time where they get to socialize. The volunteers start to recognize their regulars and developing different types of relationships with them. I started thinking this is a great opportunity to notice if someone seems to be having an emotional or a mental disturbance, or if something’s changed in their behavior. It’s another opportunity to say, ‘I notice this is happening, is there anything I can do to help you?’”

The cost of MHFA training is typically valued at around $170 per person. With mental health issues on the rise, Brenda is thankful that she has been able to play a part in creating lower-cost opportunities for the people in the metro area.

“It’s really working out well. I’m really happy that a lot of different organizations are backing the idea that Mental Health First Aid is important,” Brenda said. “The goal is to make this training just as common as getting CPR and First Aid training.”

Learn more about the Mental Health First Aid training at

The Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a non-profit. Applications can be made at chapters/cassclay

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