Mental Health First Aid Well-Being Course Begins this Fall

By: Whitney Hopler, Communications Coordinator

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 new well-being course will teach students how to assist people who are dealing with a mental health or substance use-related crisis. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is an 8-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.

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 Katie Clare, assistant dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, 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.”

Two sections of the course are available for the fall 2017 semester: UNIV 370 002 (CRN 82093) and UNIV 370 004 (CRN 82097). The course will address risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, and will cover topics such as: depression and mood disorders, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychosis, and substance use disorders.

MHFA training sessions have been offered for several years at Mason. Those sessions have “been received with enthusiasm” but more faculty and staff than students participated, said Clare. Now that the training has expanded into a course, Clare said she hopes more students will take advantage of it. “We’re super excited to offer this as a course for academic credit,” she said. “Only a small handful of students have been able to participate in previous offerings because of the time commitment. We hope the eight-week offering will allow us to reach out to the student body because we think they would really benefit. They have a lot to offer to the conversation, especially when it comes to understanding and addressing the mental health concerns of the college student population. We also know they can help us in our work to reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns, and this will be easier for them to do with a better understanding of the issues. We see this as an opportunity for them to learn more about a critical topic and to then be a potential help to their communities here at Mason and beyond this community, too.”

Anxiety, depression, and struggles with alcohol and other drugs are all common mental health challenges facing people in college. “These are the ones that I see turn up a good amount in my work with students,” Clare said. 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 will teach 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 enroll will 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 will also offer students “a first aid action plan, so that students can assist a person who is experiencing troubling symptoms,” Levinson said. MHFA will also teach 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 – will be 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.”

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn about mental health and earn academic credit at the same time,” said Mark Thurston, director of educational programs at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.  “These are skills that can be applied in one’s life far beyond just the years at Mason.”