Walgreens Boots Alliance launched a training program for pharmacists to learn how to better identify warning signs of mental health and substance use problems in their patients and help them during crisis situations.
The retailer partnered with the American Pharmacists Association and the National Council for Behavioral Health to create an online version of the Mental Health First Aid program, which was developed in 2001 in Australia to provide individuals who weren't clinicians with strategies to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
The National Council for Behavioral Health, Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Missouri Department of Mental Health oversee the program in the U.S.
"With the growing need for services and resources to help those living with mental health conditions, as well as substance use and addiction, we can play an important role by giving our pharmacists and certain team members the training to help those in crisis," said Alex Gourlay, Walgreens' co-chief operating officer, in a released statement.
Betsy Schwartz, vice president of public education and strategic initiatives at the National Council, said Mental Health First Aid is typically offered as an eight-hour, in-person course with certification.
Walgreens' program for pharmacists will be a four-hour interactive online course that will not offer full certification in mental health first aid. Instead, participants can earn continuing education credits from the American Pharmacists Association. Pharmacists will learn how to deal with scenarios involving patients experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder.
In addition to pharmacists, up to 300 personnel from Walgreens' human resources department will undergo the full eight-hour, in-person training course to help them address mental health and substance abuse issues among their co-workers.
"There's nothing clinical about Mental Health First Aid," Schwartz said. "It's more about helping pharmacists to know how to have a helpful conversation."
A Walgreens spokesman said a small percentage of the company's more than 27,000 pharmacists will undergo training initially, with plans to make it available companywide and then industrywide to give any pharmacist an opportunity to earn continuing education credits.
The Walgreens partnership is the first collaboration of its kind with one of the country's giant retail pharmacy chains. The National Community Pharmacists Association, the leading organization representing independent pharmacies, also offers continuing education credits to all pharmacists who complete Mental Health First Aid training and worked with the National Council for Behavioral Health to develop a course for pharmacists.
The Walgreens spokesman said the training will help to complement the company's other efforts to address patients with mental health substance abuse issues. In 2016 the company launched a digital platform to help connect patients experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues with clinical resources in their communities and offers access to mental healthcare services through its telehealth service operated by Florida-based firm, MDLive.
Schwartz hopes other large retail pharmacy chains will adopt Mental Health First Aid training for their pharmacists to help fill some of the country's gaps in behavioral healthcare services.
An estimated 43 million American adults experience a mental illness in a given year, but only 41% receive mental health services, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"The issues of substance use and mental health are real and acute," American Pharmacists Association CEO Thomas Menighan said in a written statement. "Arming our front lines with these training and educational resources is a strong move in addressing this crisis."