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When people need physical first aid, the steps to help seem straightforward: from bandaging a wound after a fall to performing CPR after someone stops breathing. But when the crisis is in the mind rather than the body, it can be challenging to know what to do. A well-being course at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia teaches students how to assist people who are dealing with a mental health or substance use-related crisis. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is an eight-week course students can take to earn one academic credit from Mason and a certificate from Mental Health First Aid USA, part of the National Council of Behavioral Health.
For Abigail Allen, a Criminology, Law and Society major who is also a resident advisor, the course was an opportunity to see how she could transform or maybe even save lives.
“I wanted to be able to best help out people I was serving as an RA, and I wanted to learn more for myself, too,” Allen said.
Many college students struggle with mental health issues, according to data from the American College Health Association’s fall 2016 National College Health Assessment report that shows 66 percent reported feeling “very sad,” 60.8 percent reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” and 10.4 percent said they “seriously considered suicide” over the past year.
Katie Clare, assistant dean of undergraduate academic affairs in Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, teaches a section of the course.
“It’s about reading the situation,” she said of providing mental health first aid to those in need. “It’s about being thoughtful, honest, caring and asking the right questions to get clarity — figuring out how to ask the right questions at the right time.”
The candid discussion about anxiety and depression that students engaged in during a class contrasted sharply with the stigma that can shroud mental health issues in our culture.
“It’s great to be open about it, to talk about it honestly,” said Allen, who added that she has experienced depression, anxiety and bulimia. “That’s so important to get past the stigma of our issues.”
Fernando Barrientos, who majors in psychology, said students in the class are building bonds as they discuss mental health challenges.
“Everybody here in class is very open about their lives. It can even turn into group therapy sometimes,” Barrientos said.
Students in the course get a first-aid action plan and practice empathetic listening skills.
“Before I took this course, I was worried about people getting defensive if I asked them about their feelings,” Barrientos said. “But now I feel more confident about trying to help the people I know who are going through a crisis.”
Students who have a better understanding of mental health issues can offer real help to people struggling with them — and reduce society’s stigma of mental illness. “The only way the stigma can go away is if we embrace the issue in a proactive, helpful way,” said Clare, who will teach one section of the course. “There are plenty of people — famous and not famous — who struggle with mental health concerns. It’s a human thing. Mental health concerns don’t make you better than others or worse than others. It just makes you a unique human being in a pretty complex, demanding world. Hopefully, we have an inherent desire to help others and to extend a helping hand.” MHFA, she said, “is one way to do this helping-oriented work to strengthen our communities and to better understand others.”
The course addresses risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, and covers topics such as: depression and mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychosis, and substance use disorders. Those are all common mental health challenges facing people in college, Clare said. “These are the ones that I see turn up a good amount in my work with students,” she added. Students in the MHFA course will learn ways they can support those they know who are struggling with issues like those.
“This course is especially pertinent to college students because many students are learning about themselves and who they are at this stage in their life,” said Patrice Levinson, a nurse practitioner at Student Health Services, who teaches another section of the course. “Some mental illnesses are initially manifested in adolescence and young adulthood. I think it’s helpful for people to think about how they and the people they know are feeling in the context of the possibility of a mental illness and to know that there is hope for recovery.”
Students who receive lists of memoirs and movies about mental illness, from which they can choose a book and a film to study. “Talking about mental illnesses in this class is so different from the way some people and some media talk about people with mental illness in our everyday lives,” Levinson said. “There is much less compassion and understanding — more of a ‘why don’t they just snap out of it’ mentality in our society. MHFA discusses these topics in a sensitive and inquisitive way, giving students valuable practice that will help them change their attitudes and opinions about mental illness.”
The course also offers students “a first aid action plan, so that students can assist a person who is experiencing troubling symptoms,” Levinson said. MHFA also teaches them a key skill: listening well. “It helps them learn how to really listen — a skill that is often not mastered until later in adulthood. It will give them an opportunity to practice empathy, in the setting of helping someone with a mental illness. They will learn about which health care professionals treat people with mental illnesses and they will learn many self-care strategies and treatments.”
Even life-threatening crises — those that involve suicidal people — are covered in the course. Students will be equipped to help people in those alarming situations, Levinson said. The course “gives students the opportunity to think about and discuss what it means to have suicidal thoughts and engage in non-suicidal self-injury behaviors. They will get an opportunity to practice asking the question, ‘Do you have thoughts of suicide?’ And, then they will learn how to help a person who answers ‘yes’ to that question.”
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.
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