I recently went back to school. I squeezed into a small, crowded room with 27 people and sat through an eight-hour, fast-track course to learn something new.

I can now add another training to my resume – certification in Mental Health First Aid USA (MHFA), issued by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

MHFA is a public education program that teaches methods to assist people experiencing mental health problems. Novant Health sponsored the free training.

The course delivered all I hoped it would — a chance to learn strategies for helping others during a mental health crisis. As a fitness professional and former college professor, I’ve observed the crippling effects of mental health challenges.


During my training, I learned that a common ailment like stress, when left untreated, can progressively blossom to mental instability and other serious health problems.

“Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may… contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like depression or anxiety,” says the National Institute of Mental Health.

Although exercise is no cure-all for mental health challenges, I was pleased to hear it be included as one of many strategies when we talked about treatment options.

The course was facilitated by Kathy Ake, a LCSW staff social worker of Novant Health, and Natasha Oakes, LPC, a therapist in private practice. They kept the discussions lively, led real-life scenarios and made great use of the time, given how much information was covered.

“The course is designed to help one do better, because you know better,” Ake said.

As a MHFA, I won’t prescribe treatment, issue prescriptions or make diagnosis. But I can use my training to assistance those experiencing depression, anxiety, psychosis and disorders related to substance abuse.

As I said earlier, the course is offered for free, and I highly recommend.

My cohort was an interesting mix of men, women, educators, college students, community providers and all ethnicities.

As part of the course completion, we got a three-year certification, useful resources, a beautiful certificate and lunch was free, too!

For more information on becoming a MHFA, visit the Novant website. Registration is required.

Until next time, I wish you health and wellness!

Sondra E. Z. Hines is an AFAA-certified group fitness instructor, Zumba instructor, workshop presenter and motivational speaker. A former adjunct professor, she has 15-plus years as a fitness instructor...