Meridian meets mental health concerns head-on

There is no denying the growing mental health crisis in the U.S. Affecting all walks of life and all ages, the cost of America’s mental health status is staggering. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S experience mental illness in a given year and one in ten full-time employees have addiction issues. It is estimated that, on average, an employee takes up to 10 days off from work due to a mental health issue.

The effect on productivity, workplace environment and health care costs is growing. Looking only at lost earnings, serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion a year.

So, how can businesses and community organizations target this issue? With education and the tools to meet it head-on according to Joe Munson, Vice President of Prevention and Community Education for Meridian Behavioral Healthcare.

“Like teaching people to perform CPR or First Aid, giving people the tools to handle a mental health issue is critical to the general health of the community,” says Dr. Munson.

Based in Gainesville, Meridian’s mission is to promote the health, recovery and well-being of those affected by mental illness and substance use disorders through prevention, coordinated treatment and supportive services.

Initiated in 2001, the Australian-born program has spread to 23 countries worldwide. Since 2010, Meridian has offered the 8-hour Mental Health First Aid Course in the central Florida area and has trained over 3000 residents to spot and initially address mental health issues.

“We are training the general community as a first responder in dealing with a mental health issue,” Dr. Munson, the program coordinator says. “The main goal is always getting someone the help they need, but first it has to be recognized that they need help.”

The course trains individuals to recognize risk factors and warning signs of mental health and addiction issues and supplies a 5-step action plan that teaches people how to talk practically to an individual and how to deescalate and stabilize a situation until professional help arrives or is sought. Upon completion of the course, attendees earn a Mental Health First Aider certification from the National Council for Behavioral Health, which is valid for three years.

This past year, the program has made perhaps its greatest impact on the surrounding area through the collaboration between the Alachua County Board of Commissions and Meridian. Over an 8-month time completed this spring, 850 plus Alachua County employees have been trained in 39 Mental Health First Aid workshops. The program began with court services and initially focused on employees with direct contact to the general public. It has since included fire fighters, EMTs and paramedics, social workers and community service supervisors.

According to Alachua County Commissioner, Robert Hutchinson, community leaders are recognizing that mental health concerns are the basis for social problems including crime, homelessness and the rise in suicide.

“Programs like Mental Health First Aid dramatically reduce the stigma of mental illness, which is the main thing that keeps people from getting the treatment they need,” says Hutchinson. He added, “Education like this shows people how prevalent mental health illness is, how treatable it is and that we all know people personally who have an illness that we just didn’t recognize before. Now we can step up and do something.”

Commissioner Hutchinson further explained the role this type of community education plays in Alachua County’s Vision 2020, where the goal is to have 20% of Alachua County residents trained in mental health awareness by the year 2020.

“With budgeted funds remaining from this year’s program, we have extended the offer of training to all constitutional offices, library districts and even neighboring municipalities to have their employees educated.”

But Hutchinson went even further. “We need businesses and community groups and schools to step up and do their part to educate people.  We challenge the Chamber of Commerce, Santa Fe the Alachua County School Board and UF to get their employees trained as well,” says Hutchinson.

“This training is available to all businesses and community organizations who are interested,” says Dr. Munson, “we can customize the timing and days and locations to bring this information to as many as possible.”

The individual cost for the course is $40 with the corporate cost of a group less than 25 people at $500. Non-profit pricing is also available and all attendees receive a detailed manual to keep as reference after the initial training.

Meridian and its staff have taught the Mental Health First Aid course to businesses, community organizations, churches and schools. On another level, Meridian also offers a Ropes Course Challenge focusing on team building and working together.

“Our ropes course is team-focused where participants learn healthy risk taking skills and focus on problem solving and team building in an outdoor setting,” says Dr. Munson.  The program may be customized for all group sizes, budgets and abilities involving 2 hours or up to a full day on the course.

The goal, according to Dr. Munson, is to enhance team relationships and problem solving, which goes hand-in-hand with improving mental health wellness.

Meridian is a private, non-profit organization that works through 16 sites across central Florida providing crisis services, rehabilitation, outreach and community education.  The organization services a population of half a million in 12 counties in Florida, including Alachua, Bradford and Gilchrist. To find out more, visit

By Kathryn Pizzurro

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