It took a rolled-up piece of paper to explain just how crippling mental illness can be.

Taking a paper tube, one of the students gathered at the Chanhassen Library last Monday morning leaned toward her neighbor and began whispering in one ear. “Don’t trust her — you can’t trust anyone.” At the same time, another participant tried to conduct a conversation with the person in the middle. It turned out to be almost impossible.

“I was so confused,” one student said. “It was difficult to know what to focus on,” another echoed.

The exercise was one of several used in a series of classes rolling out across the Twin Cities this spring designed to teach psychiatric first aid. At a time when nearly 1 in 10 Americans has a diagnosable mental illness, public health educators want more people to have the skills to respond to a psychiatric emergency much as they might administer CPR to someone having a heart attack.

“There is not always going to be a therapist around. We need to be able to give that emergency care until help arrives,” said Jennie Bennett, the instructor at Monday’s class.

The cause got a lift nationally this month from President Obama, who endorsed mental health training in the wake of the school shootings Newtown, Conn. In Minnesota, the 2013 Legislature allocated $17 million to expand mental health education over the next four years.

Since March, 50 people have taken the class in adolescent mental health, and more than 700 have taken the adult version.

“We need to make sure that, as a community, we understand what mental illness looks like in children and adults, [and] we need to connect them with the right resources,” said Sue Abderholden, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, sponsor of the classes.

People registered for Monday’s class, which focused on adolescent mental health, ranged from school counselors to law enforcement officers and members of the clergy.

They learned the importance of early intervention, techniques to reduce the stigma around mental illness and skills to help the patient until appropriate help arrives or the crisis passes.

The training was originally developed in 2001 by an Australian duo: Anthony Jorm, a mental health professor, and Betty Kitchener, a nurse who specializes in health education.

The class on adolescent mental health explains the definitions and characteristics of various mental health disorders, how children are diagnosed and how to tell a genuine disorder from a child who might merely be seeking attention.

Teenagers may have more trouble than adults understanding the symptoms of a psychiatric problem, Bennett said. Teens may also require more testing than adults to rule out the possibility that they’re simply going through the trials of puberty or hormonal changes.

“The course was a reminder to be real with the kids and to be a better listener,” said Becky Camp, an in-home skills counselor for David Hoy & Associates. As someone who suffered from severe depression in her teen years, Camp has a personal feel for the ordeal. Young people having a psychiatric or emotional crisis “don’t need advice,” she said. “They often need support.”

The next class is scheduled for July 10 in Dakota County.