Post-secondary institutions training staff to recognize and help

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This past September, Mount Royal University introduced the Mental Health First Aid training program, an awareness literacy program aimed at faculty and staff. The course is an extension of a program started by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Its content focuses on providing its recipients with an understanding of mental health issues, and how to respond to those showing symptoms.

Natasha Rogers, a resident life advisor, is a full-time staff member at Mount Royal University. She lives and works on campus, and took the course along with several residence assistants prior to the beginning of the school year.

Edited ResLifeCoordinator1Natasha Rogers, a resident life coordinator at Mount Royal, took the Mental Health First Aid training prior to the beginning of the semester. It taught her to act as a first responder to someone in need of help, and how to connect them to the proper resources.

Photo by Danielle Semrau

“The Mental Health First Aid (training) is designed to be kind of parallel to what you would get in a regular first aid course,” said Rogers.

“(It encourages) the idea that we’re not professionals, we’re not diagnosing and we’re not treating them,” she said. “But we’re the first responder person who’s just there to connect people with the proper resources and be aware and react in a way that’s going to be able to help people along.”

A growing crisis

Programs such as this have steadily become part of the university landscape following the release of recent studies that have suggested that mental health issues among university students is on the rise. Maclean’s magazine even went so far as to dub this demographic the “broken generation.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 24 per cent of deaths of 15 to 24-year-olds can be attributed to suicide. It is the second leading cause of death among this age demographic after car accidents.

“The prediction is that, by 2020, mental health issues are going to be the leading cause of disability at Canadian universities,” said David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria in a 2012 report on the issue.

The American College Health Association conducts a National College Health Assessment every two years, assessing among other things, students’ mental and physical health, sexual health, and their consumption of alcohol and tobacco.

In spring of 2010 the results of this survey taken by Mount Royal University students was published.

Of the Mount Royal University students who responded to the study, it was found that nearly 33 per cent had felt so depressed over their last 12 months that they had difficulty coping. Over half of all of the students surveyed had reported feeling overwhelming anxiety, while nearly eight per cent had reported that they’d considered suicide in the last year.

Jack Dobbs, a registered psychologist with Mount Royal University’s student counseling and wellness services, met this summer with other members of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.

Edited EditOneMentalHealthMental health issues on university campuses have been on the rise, with greater levels of anxiety being reported. Mount Royal University has recently implemented a Mental Health First Aid Training program, to teach participants how to recognize and respond to those showing signs of mental health issues.

Photo illustration by Danielle Semrau Otherwise referred to as CAUCUSS, this association consists of student service professionals from across Canada, who meet once a year to discuss various issues affecting post-secondary institutions.

“What we are seeing and what our data is showing is that increasingly there are more students coming to university with higher reported levels of anxiety,” Dobbs said.

He also said that university wellness services across the nation are reporting that they are seeing more people with chronic mental health issues, whether that be schizophrenia or brain injuries. Some of these individuals, Dobbs said, may have been dealing with these issues for years.

A proactive approach

As the reported incidence rates of mental health issues have risen, wellness facilities at Mount Royal University and other universities are taking steps to change the direction of their focus. Dobbs said the university is doing much more in terms of outreach than they had in the past.

Patrick Carriere, the manager of health, safety and wellness at SAIT Polytechnic, said that all course participants have been trained to take the following five actions when approaching any troublesome situation:

  • Assess an individual’s risk of suicide or harm
  • Listen to the individual non-judgmentally
  • Give reassurance and information to the individual
  • Encourage the individual to get appropriate help
  • Encourage others support of the individual

Dobbs said the wellness services are able to do some very meaningful work with students in individual counseling sessions, “but we also know that we can impact greater numbers of people by talking to professors who are in the classrooms everyday about early warning signs and about how we can all work together as a community to encourage positive mental health.”

Introducing Mental Health First Aid

The Mental Health First Aid training program was introduced to Mount Royal University for this very reason. While Mount Royal University has only just initiated the course, SAIT Polytechnic has held 14 training sessions since January 2012. Each session has been aimed at those individuals on campus who would most benefit from taking the course, including student administrators, security and contractors.

SAIT Polytechnic and Mount Royal University will continue to offer the Mental Health First Aid training program at no cost for the rest of the year. 

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