First Deaf Mental Health First Aid Instructors Certified in Missouri

First Deaf Mental Health First Aid Instructors Certified in Missouri


New MHFA Instructors, and the first deaf MHFA instructors in Missouri, from left to right: James Frost, Colleen Burdiss, and De Linda Kelly.

May/4/ 2015 | by Dan Musgrave

On April 17, 2015, at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health (MIMH), Colleen Burdiss, De Linda Kelly, and James Frost became the first deaf Americans certified as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructors in Missouri. They were part of an integrated class, led by the MIMH’s Jermine Alberty and Rachel Christiansen, of nearly fifteen new instructors, including health professionals, teachers, and police officers. Up to now, only one other state, Pennsylvania, has certified deaf MHFA instructors.

For Burdiss, Adult Program Manager with Paraquad, her husband’s own mental health crisis was a motivating factor to taking the class. Once, during a crisis, he was taken to the ER where his movements were interpreted as aggressive and he was restrained. While her husband struggled against the restraints, Burdiss worked franticly to explain that her husband was not being aggressive, he was merely deaf, like her, and his movements were part of his speech.

“If I wasn’t there,” Burdiss explains. “It would have been impossible. Even something as simple as ID would have been a problem. I had to explain sign language and how we express emotion with it to both the hospital staff and the police.”

As the new cohort of MHFA instructors, learned, intervening in a crisis is almost always about communication. Each activity in their training was imbued with aspects of the Mental Health First Aid action plan that emphasizes listening and providing clear information.

“This is a hands on approach,” said Christopher Koester, a St. Louis County Police Officer and member of the Crisis Intervention Team. “With Mental Health First Aid, we’re given the tools to quickly assess a situation and provide a clear route to intervention and help. It’ll really help on our end.”

For Burdiss and the others, the training was the first step in the right direction, both for them personally, and the community at large.

“The class is great for exposure,” Frost, a health care advocacy lawyer, noted. “There’s a huge stigma about mental health in the deaf community. Deaf people don’t think they have enough access to health care. Hopefully, through classes like this and increased awareness, this will help individuals to better advocate for themselves.”

“Most psychologists and other health professionals depend on specific keywords, with certain interpretations,” said Kelly, Director of Communication and Transition Services for Meril Independent Living Centers. “But for us, the treatment can often be off due to the communication barrier. The words we use and those they use don’t always lead to the same meaning, despite everyone’s best efforts. Our expressiveness, through our movements, is part of our culture.”

As the cohort of new instructors was called one by one to stand and receive their certificates of completion, the room was simultaneously silent and full of applause. With their hands raised and turning at the wrist, the whole class used the sign language for applause to welcome each other into the ranks of MHFA Instructors.

More information about Mental Health First Aid training can be found at:


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