People call newsrooms to share. A complaint about a story, a compliment, a question on anything from "why doesn't my TV show the game?" to "why won't Politician X call me back?"

I've been cussed at, lectured to, yelled at, insulted, had my American-ness questioned because I wrote something a caller didn't agree with. I've been told I should run for the Senate. One woman calls and sings songs that come to mind from the news.

It's all part of the job.

But sometimes the voice on the line is filled with such sorrow, such pain and terror. They're calling to share their desperation, to know - and let others know - that they're not alone.

The mother who worried she might harm herself or her son because he has disabilities and is getting too big for her to handle alone. She's tried to deal with him, but she can't do it anymore. She needs to let people know that she had a reason.

The man who sat outside the hospital where his wife lay dying of cancer. He wanted someone to know his story, so when the cops killed him people would understand he wasn't a terrible person. That he had a reason - he couldn't help his wife and she was in so much pain and they had no insurance and he'd lost his job and couldn't pay the light bill. Couldn't help her. Couldn't help their kids.

(In those situations, Star editors called 911 because it appeared that the callers and possibly others were in imminent danger. Neither situation ended in violence, as far as I know.)

I am not a mental-health professional. I don't want to make the situation worse, to say or do the wrong thing.

It's a terrible feeling, being helpless in the face of something so overwhelming that it's engulfing a friend, a relative or a stranger who reaches out. We want to have the answer and make things right. We want to help.

We just don't always know how.

Simply talking about mental health - making it less of a "thing" - is one way to make it ordinary. Sometimes being ordinary is good.

We all have things we won't say out loud, subjects too delicate and personal to talk about even with close friends. We don't want to be judged - yet we judge ourselves in cruel ways we would never do to someone else.

None of us is that far removed from those desperate callers. We'd like to think we could handle any situation, that we can weather any storm, but it's not true. We just don't know until we're in it. And by then, we can't always find our way out, especially without help.

This is where Mental Health First Aid comes in.

The training is often mentioned in the context of finding ways to prevent future mass shootings. As horrific and all-encompassing as those tragedies are, we should not ignore the far more common individual struggles.

Mental Health First Aid is one way to gain the confidence to offer help, to be of service when needed. It's something we should all do, just like we should all know basic CPR and carry jumper cables in our trunks. It's part of being prepared.

I took the Mental Health First Aid training in July 2011 at the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, the regional authority that operates our public behavioral health network. It's time well spent.

Rep. Ron Barber has introduced legislation that would provide federal grants for Mental Health First Aid training. He was shot in the Jan. 8, 2011, rampage that killed six people. He was one of the 13 people physically injured that day.

Arizona Rep. Victoria Steele and Rep. Ethan Orr, who both represent District 9 on the northwest side, have introduced legislation that would allocate funding to offer the Mental Health First Aid training statewide.

"This may not prevent another mass shooting, but it might," Steele said. "If nothing else, it's bound to help people through difficult situations. I think it will save lives. How we measure that, I'm not sure. But we have to do something."

Yes, we do.

Mental-health help

If you or someone you know is having a mental-health emergency and is a danger to self or others, call 911. For help with mental-health issues and for resources, call the communitywide crisis line at 622-6000.

To learn more about Mental Health First Aid and resources available in Southern Arizona, go to

Some of the trainings are full, but more are scheduled for May.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column appears on Thursdays. Contact her at