For years, People Incorporated, a St. Paul-based community provider of behavioral and mental health services, has been offering classes and programs on a variety of mental health topics for their employees as well as workers from other social service agencies through the organization’s Training Institute.
More recently, People Incorporated began hearing from employers in other industries who were curious if the nonprofit could provide specialized mental health training for their workers. These organizations offered a wide range of services but they had one thing in common: Their workers interacted with customers in public spaces.
Russ Turner, director of People Incorporated’s Training Institute, said that one of the more recent — and largest — employers that his organization created a customized training program for is Metro Transit. The system’s bus operators were seeing increased numbers of riders struggling with mental health issues and wanted to learn safe and effective ways to respond.
The growing number of requests for the training institute’s services is connected to a general increase in mental health issues across the community, Turner explained. Workers who were never trained to assist people in mental health crises are now finding themselves in situations where these skills could be of use.
“Most of these workers don’t have a social work degree,” Turner said of the workshop participants. “They are not mental health practitioners, and they probably don’t really want to be. But in a way that’s what they’re doing now.”
Turner and I spoke recently about this change, where it came from and how his organization is rising to the challenge. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: What made you decide to offer these specialized trainings?
Russ Turner: Around 10, 12 years ago I started noticing that people from other companies and agencies were drifting into our trainings, which is unusual. When we were providing continuing education for people in our industry, we were partnering across organizations, building bridges in our own bubble with other social service agencies. We were offering continuing education units for social workers, for instance.
About six years ago we started getting more calls and emails from other industries outside our bubble. You might say the bubble started to burst. People like Metro Transit began contacting us with an interest in trainings that we’ve been doing for ages with our staff, topics like crisis de-escalation, mental health awareness, what’s happening when people are in a crisis, how should professionals respond to that, tips about what not to do.
People from other industries are now very interested in mental health in the workplace.
MP: Why is that?
RT: Whatever’s happening in society, in the community, out on the streets, it will eventually come into people’s workplaces. We’ve done trainings for schools, libraries, rec centers. You have staff whose primary job has typically been to book people into the gym, check out their library books. That’s their basic job, but increasingly what they have actually been tasked with is working with people who are homeless, people who are severely and persistently mentally ill, who are coming into the center. In a way, these are people who are lost.
MP: How does that change impact workers?
RT: Now people have a whole new set of things that they are working with. In most workplaces, de-escalating a mental health crisis is not in your job description. A great example of this is libraires. They are public spaces, a community place that is warm during the winter. People are coming into libraries, some are borrowing books, a lot are not. The library staff have to work with all this and they also have to work with their “legacy” customers at the same time. People are coming into the library in all sorts of psychiatric states.
MP: How do you design trainings that speak to specific workers or workplaces?
RT: We try to go into the space that exists between the mental health community and the workplace. We come into the middle and say, “We can bring you some pretty good ideas for mental health but we don’t know a lot about your workplace so if we can come together and workshop it first it could be helpful.” There is a lot of residual anxiety, stress and trauma in the community from the pandemic, from George Floyd, from January 6. All of that anxiety and tension is seeping into workplaces. We would like to help different types of workers understand a bit more about mental health crisis de-escalation, mental health awareness and critical-incident stress debriefing after a difficult day.
MP: One organization that has hired you to train its employees is Metro Transit. You’ve been offering mental health awareness workshops and training for bus operators. Can you tell me more about that partnership?
RT: Metro Transit is a very forward-thinking organization. Instead of being located in a physical building, their workers are located in a bus. But the same concepts apply. And there are issues their workers have to deal with that go way beyond driving the vehicle. Not only does the operator have to operate the vehicle, they also have to be able to manage the tension with people getting on and off. They have to keep the environment calm and safe. They also have to manage their own mental health. This work is quite taxing over time.
While Metro Transit is just one example of many organizations that we’ve worked with, it is a particularly exciting one. We trained 1,800 bus drivers right through the pandemic. We are also part of their apprentice program, where an employee’s first couple of years of them being an operator includes a little bit of monthly education. Mental health awareness is part of that.
MinnPost: What kinds of skills did you teach during those trainings?
RT: We give the drivers one or two good tools, things they can say and should not say to people who are upset, to help keep the situation as calm and safe as possible. But that’s only one component of it. Part of our work with Metro Transit has been to provide training that essentially destigmatizes mental health so people understand it better. It is easy when someone is “acting out” to just to see those behaviors and be upset with them. If you understand more about how trauma manifests in people you begin to understand it a bit better. You are more likely to produce a more empathetic response that is safer and more effective.
MP: What are some of the other organizations you’ve worked with?
RT: We did a program with the St. Paul Fire Department. Their EMTs are good at their job: They can get you to Regions Hospital in 12 minutes. But what they are telling us is that a lot of what they are working with is beyond that. It looks like a mental health crisis. We worked with them on how they can address that.
We’ve also worked with a range of retail workers. Mask mandates set a lot of that off. You have someone whose primary job is to work on the cash register and now they are becoming some sort of bouncer or security officer. That’s not easy work. It is a whole different set of skills. We did some work with a grocery organization in Wisconsin about using de-escalation techniques to help people to comply with mask mandates without them getting so upset.
One thing these organizations have in common is they are all about public spaces. They’re a representation in a way of what’s happening in society.
MP: Have you been surprised by any of the organizations that have inquired about your trainings?
RT: We did a couple of trainings with museums. The staff needed trainings so they could work with irate customers who didn’t want to follow safety protocol. When I step back and think about it, that’s a little jarring: I’m old enough to remember when going to a library or going to a museum would be one of the most boring things you could do, whereas now staff need awareness that they didn’t before.
MP: Are there any workers out there that already have these skills and don’t need your workshops?
RT: Hair stylists and bartenders are already experts. An experienced and skillful bartender has great people skills. If you had an opportunity to meet with a bunch of hair stylists and bartenders, and you framed it in a mental health paradigm, they’d probably sit through the class and say, “Yeah, yeah. I do that already.” Those skills are golden but they are still somewhat rare and getting rarer, especially with less authentic face-to-face interaction generally.