By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Free Program helps reduce stigma of mental illness

Working toward a career in the counseling field with children and adolescents, Emily Bartholomew recently participated in a free certification program designed to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness and substance-abuse disorders.

“I feel that mental illness, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety — even post-traumatic stress disorder — is still taboo to talk about,” said Bartholomew, 32, of Simi Valley.

The certification is a positive step for herself and the community at large, she said.

“Some communities have suffered with school shootings, bullying and theater bombings,” Bartholomew said. “If we were just more aware as a community, we could band together and help each other. Awareness ... and acceptance are probably the most powerful tools to utilize.”

Bartholomew was among 15 people who completed the 12-hour certification course, Mental Health First Aid USA, at the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District’s Sycamore Drive Community Center in Simi Valley.

The course is available to the community for free.

The next sessions will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 17 and 18.

“You don’t need to be a licensee, a police officer, a professional. This program was designed for neighbors, co-workers and the general public,” said Mary Ellen Collins, a certified trainer.

“It demystifies many misconceptions about mental disorders, eliminating fears and offering a compassionate perspective; that is exactly why it is so powerful,” Collins said. “The potential for a community to immediately respond to someone’s emotional/mental needs could help mitigate more severe problems.”

Shastina Osibov, a service dog trainer, enrolled because she wants to work with veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and social disorder.

“I’m here to get a little bit more knowledge,” said Osibov, of Simi Valley. “The more understanding I can have ... towards what the soldiers are going through, the better off I am.”

Brenda Birdwell, a senior advocate with Senior Concerns in Thousand Oaks, signed up because some of her clients have mental health issues.

“I’m not really sure how to deal with them,” said Birdwell, of Thousand Oaks. “I’m here to see how to handle the situations better and not make them worse, and obtain more resources. ... This certification is going to help me be less judgmental with my clients and understand how to handle the difficult situations that they’re in.”

For Bartholomew, the course also helped her understand her own depression.

“I’ve struggled throughout my life,” she said. “My strongest tool against depression is just knowing the most I can know about it ... and I want to put that to use to help someone else.”

The course walks participants through a five-step plan called ALGEE: A for access for risk of suicide or harm; L for listening non-judgmentally; G for giving reassurance and information; E for encouraging appropriate professional help; and E for encouraging self-help and other support strategies.

“Those completing this training can help others,” said Doug Gale, recreation administrator for the Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District. “The goal of this program is to reduce the negative stigma of mental illness and help those struggling to get better.”

The local offering was inspired by June Ewart, community coordinator with Community Coalition United.

"This training strives to prevent mental health and substance abuse crisis; it teaches participants about the signs and symptoms while working to decrease the stigma,” Ewart said. “Anyone can attend, and entire communities can benefit, including families and the organizations and agencies that serve them.”


To pre-register, contact Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District at or 584-4400. Registrations may also be made in advance at 1692 Sycamore Drive, Door A-2, in Simi Valley. Visit for more information.

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