Mental Health First Aid Comes to Campus

Two young women are indoors in a bedroom. They are wearing casual clothing. One woman looks sad, and she is being comforted by her friend. (Getty Images)
UConn has begun offering mental health training sessions, becoming part of a national movement to make mental health first aid as widespread as CPR and first aid skills. (Getty Images)

CPR and basic first aid care are skills that millions of Americans acquire. Who knows how many lives and limbs have been saved over the years because somebody took the time to get some basic training?

Now this same type of training is available for mental health; and Sigma Theta Alpha, a co-ed professional health fraternity at UConn, has taken the lead to bring the program to campus.

Being a mental health first aider is to listen non-judgmentally and create a space of trust. — Valerie English Cooper

Mental Health First Aid training is a national initiative that is performed locally by Mental Health Connecticut, a statewide non-profit organization whose mission is to improve mental health for all state residents. The group has come to UConn three times for the day-long training, and another session is planned for March.

“There is a huge initiative by the federal government to make Mental Health First Aid as common as CPR training,” says Valerie English Cooper, a community educator for Mental Health Connecticut, who has performed the training at UConn.
“We introduce information on mental illness with the basic facts. We don’t teach how to diagnose – we do the opposite. Labeling and jumping to conclusions based on symptoms and behaviors is harmful, dangerous, and inappropriate, because that is for professionals.”

Like its CPR counterpart, Mental Health First Aid is a universal experience taught the same way everywhere. It originated in Australia in 2001.

“Being a mental health first aider is to listen non-judgmentally and create a space of trust,” says Cooper. “We teach people that listening will be more important than anything they say.”

UConn nursing major Lisa Iwanicki ’18 (NUR), from Burlington, Connecticut, is a member of Sigma Theta Alpha and first took the training in 2016. She now serves as an organizer for the event each time it returns to campus.

“I have realized that there are behavioral issues with every part of medicine and every ward of a hospital – maternity, critical care, all of them,” says Iwanicki. “It is prevalent in every community, and simply overwhelming in college.

“There are plenty of resources on campuses,” she adds, “but this training brings you the connection to be able to identify people that need help.”

Iwanicki believes the training is important for students of all majors to take, not just those involved in health care. “When you take the training, you go over the myths and learn the facts,” she says. “It really changes the way you think, and I can now take appropriate steps if someone I know needs help.”

Senior Morgan Reiss ’18 (CLAS), a psychology major from Newtown, Connecticut, went through the training for the first time on Feb. 24.

“It was everything I hoped for and more,” said Reiss. “I didn’t even know something like this existed, and then I saw a flyer for it. It was not just about learning the signs and symptom of mental illness, but what someone can do in the community to help.”

The program is split into classroom-style work, watching videos, and simulation of real-life issues. The action plan taught works under the acronym of ALGEE – Assess for risk of suicide or harm, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help, and Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Reiss says she got a lot out of the simulation activities, where the instructor played a man who had just lost his wife and his family was concerned that he was falling into a pattern of depression. Participants in the class would ask potential questions to “the father,” and the instructor would provide feedback.

“In CPR training, you get to work with manikins first,” says Reiss. “The simulation in Mental Health First Aid is similar. We get to know what works and what does not [through role playing].”

When she got back to the residence hall, she recommended the training to her roommate.

“It was cool to be in a room with people who want to help make a change,” she says. “Mental health is not talked about much in society.”

Mental Health First Aid continues to rise in popularity. Participation by such notables as former First Lady Michelle Obama and music superstar Lady Gaga has brought the program into the spotlight.

“The whole key to this program is to let people know recovery is possible,” says Cooper. “The first approach might not be the one that is helpful. But you have to try and try. You need to keep people hopeful.”

Editor’s Note: The next Mental Health First Aid Training to take place at UConn will be on Saturday, March 24, 2018 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Register at www.mhconn.org/education/mental-health-first-aid.

Any campus group that would like to host a training session can contact venglishcooper@mhconn.org or 860-471-6715.