First aid for the mind
One university’s trailblazing program helps faculty, staff and students recognize the signs of mental illness
If not for University of Rhode Island Provost Donald H. DeHayes’ community service, URI might not be adopting an innovative program designed to help students who are experiencing mental-health challenges — students who sometimes do not recognize that they are ill and so do nothing about it.
DeHayes sits on the steering committee of South County Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds. The collaborative already was offering the program — Mental Health First Aid, it is called — in local schools, but not at the higher-education level.
With URI’s approximately 17,000 students, “it was clear to me that we needed to do this,” he said. “Mental-health issues are on the rise — not only on our campus, but basically throughout the country.”
With the assistance of Susan Orban, director of Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, DeHayes began to move last spring.
A dozen faculty and staff spent eight hours being certified as Mental Health First Aid trainers, and they, in shorter sessions, have instructed more than 300 others at URI in the essentials of the program. They are now spreading out through the URI community.
Pioneered in Australia, Mental Health First Aid came to the U.S. a decade ago with its mission of teaching non-health professionals how to recognize the signs of mental distress, listen without judgment to those experiencing it, assess risk of harm or suicide, provide information and reassurance, and encourage self-help — or professional intervention, if indicated.
Although the program focuses on more common illnesses such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse, it also informs practitioners about other illnesses including bipolar disorder, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and body-image disorders.
“A mental-health literacy course that teaches about the most common mental-health disorders,” is how Orban describes it.
“Over one million Americans have been trained in it. The national goal is to train one in ten Americans.”
“My sense was that we had a responsibility to pay closer attention to these issues and effectively look after our students, although not just our students,” said DeHayes.
Another force helping promote Mental Health First Aid is Lindsey Anderson, director of URI’s Psychological Consultation Center.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is appropriate preventive work,” Anderson said. “By increasing communication and the dialogue and reducing stigma and making this part of the daily conversation on campus, we’re hoping we can create a support network where everybody’s looking out for everybody and people don’t reach a crisis point.”
While it is too early to quantitatively assess the success of Mental Health First Aid at URI, the anecdotal evidence is that the school already is reaping rewards, just as at other places where the program has a longer history — and data-driven evidence confirms its worth.
“Most of the students we’re seeing where the information from Mental Health First Aid is applicable are not students that would show up on the radar of the Counseling Center or the Psychological Consultation Center,” said Jacqui Tisdale, assistant director, outreach and intervention with the Dean of Students Office.
“In fact, they’re the students who in the residence halls or in the classroom have some sort of episode going on that might be related to other factors. People in our community just need to know how to help them, how to help them navigate available resources — and, equally as important, which ones are the correct ones for them in a given situation.”