Think of it as a first aid class, but the help rendered isn’t treating a wound or stopping someone from choking.

Instead, participants in eight-hour classes learn to recognize signs of mental illness, psychological distress and addiction, and how to assist people in crises. The classes, which are being offered here for free, draw from a National Council for Behavioral Health program called Mental Health First Aid.

“We’ve trained about 14,000 people in Arizona and about 4,000 in Pima County,” said Neal Cash, chief executive officer of Community Partners Inc. Cash said offering the classes follows there being “more light shed on mental illness and the fact that treatment works and people do recover and get better.”

“The classes not only benefit those taking the training, but also will help those they come in contact with around the community,” he said.

Through a partnership with Pima County Behavioral Health, Community Partners will offer more than 30 free training sessions to Southern Arizona residents beginning with the first class this week, said Tom Baca, marketing and communications administrator for Community Partners.

“We remain committed to offering this critical training at no charge,” Cash said. “Mental Health First Aid is an important part of our public safety net, just like CPR, and helps people get care when they need it.”

Community Partners, formerly Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, has provided mental-health first aid training since the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings at a Tucson Safeway that left six people dead and 14 injured, including Gabrielle Giffords, then a U.S. representative.

The shooter in the case, Jared Loughner, showed signs of mental illness and distress long before the shootings.

According to the information provided at Mental Health First Aid’s online site, participants learn a five-step strategy that includes assessing risk, respectful listening and finding appropriate professional help.

Christina Bickelmann, communications and events director with the Tucson office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said most of their employees have taken the classes.

“We’re very supportive of that program primarily because it helps people understand the signs of mental illness,” she said. One of the most important aspects is learning how to speak to people without being confrontational.

“It’s a great resource and it’s free,” she said. “It really gives people a forum to talk about mental illness, how to recognize it and how to best approach a person and help that person get assistance.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or