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A New Kind of First Aid

HOST: It’s no secret that … we’re really stressed. Rates of anxiety and depression that went up in the pandemic haven’t come down yet. 

CRISTINA MACAYA, HOST: And demand for therapy is way higher than available appointments. New York City is struggling to keep up. The city launched a trial of a mental health program originally designed by the World Health Organization for people facing extreme hardship, like refugees. The initiative trains community leaders in basic mental health support.

MARINE SAINT, HOST: As Claire Davenport reports, some of the first people getting trained are pastors.


CLAIRE DAVENPORT, BYLINE: I’m just a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium in Lowly Nazarene Baptist Church. I’m standing between the pews, and my eyes are closed. 


PARKER: Take your hands and put them on your legs and close your eyes and just kind of clear your mind.

DAVENPORT: Pastor Gail Parker is guiding me through a meditation exercise.

PARKER: And sometimes, once you get here, I’ll tell you to just imagine, wherever that place of peace for you is. It could be on the beach. It could simply be laying in your bed. But think about that place that brings you peace. To the count of four, you breathe in, 1, 2, 3, 4, exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4.

DAVENPORT: Deep breathing is just one technique Parker learned through Problem Management Plus - PM Plus for short. She went through the training at New York’s Theological Seminary. She works with Wanda Lundy,  who directs the seminary’s PM Plus program. Lundy was initially surprised that breathing was such a central practice.

LUNDY: And we were like oh! Oh wow. Breathe. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Because when you get stressed, when you become anxious, when you get nervous, the first thing we do is we tense up and we stop breathing.

DAVENPORT:  And people turned off by traditional therapy might be more open to coping strategies like deep breathing.

LUNDY: Because we're religious people. We don't have mental problems. A lot of people feel that way. Whatever your problem is, just take it to Jesus and you're going to be all right, you know.

DAVENPORT: Ministers go through the training and learn basic tools to helping others in crisis calm themselves. And PM Plus can be used anywhere, at any time. Adam Brown is a clinical psychologist and a lead coordinator on the rollout of PM Plus in New York. Training everyday people to deliver basic mental health support has always been part of his vision.

BROWN: There are people in a community who might be well positioned to deliver basic forms of support, because they're teachers, because they're faith-based leaders, because they're in other roles within their community.

DAVENPORT: And the research backs Brown up. A study done on Syrian refugees in Switzerland showed that those who received PM Plus reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression. And if breathing techniques or non-specialists feel a little “lightweight” for folks going through real adversity, Brown describes the program more like psychiatric first-aid.

BROWN: Care, especially mental health care, has kind of been very binary. Either you're well, or you're seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and not everyone necessarily has the severity or intensity of a mental health need that warrants very high levels of specialist care.

DAVENPORT: PM Plus has trained about 100 people in NYC across 25 community organizations, and Brown is hoping this will expand to a network of hubs around the city. 

DAVENPORT: And back at the Lowley Nazarene Church in the Bronx, Pastor Gail Parker, who led me through the breathing exercise, says with folks she counsels, she’ll use other PM Plus techniques … like homework.

PARKER: Maybe someone was kind of depressed. And I said, Well, what have you stopped doing that made you happy? You got a calendar. Now, what I need you to do is I need you to put down once a week that you're going to do that for an hour.

DAVENPORT: Services just started. ((pop of sound)) It’s Palm Sunday, and a busy week leading up to Easter.  Pastor Parker told me she still gets nervous before sermons. But the techniques she’s learned through PM-Plus help her as much as they help others.


PARKER: Every single time I mount the pulpit, the whole breathing thing comes back. Take a deep breath. And let’s get centered so we can worship god without all of the other stuff that you’re carrying. 

DAVENPORT: So the next time you have an overwhelming moment - when too many Slack messages come in or when the subway is delayed AGAIN - maybe take a minute to pause. And breathe.

Claire Davenport, Columbia Radio News

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