Mental Health: A Different Approach to First Aid

UChicago campus

From November 2017

By Anne Hartman

For fourth-year Madison Olmsted, being a resident assistant can involve serving as an informal counselor—one who’s comfortable with broaching sensitive topics like mental health or substance abuse and can recommend resources for support. To prepare for her role, Olmsted, along with her fellow RAs, participated in Health Promotion and Wellness’ Mental Health First Aid training, an eight-hour course that’s available to everyone in the UChicago community and teaches the skills needed to understand and respond to signs of mental illness.

“It’s an intensive training, and you leave feeling the weight of what a lot of people are going through,” Olmsted said. “But it’s also empowering, because I know I can serve as a resource for someone who is having a crisis.”

Having the ability to discuss mental health isn’t only important for RAs. Nearly one in five adults will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 75 percent do so by the age of 25. The prevalence of mental illnesses among the college-age population—and the stigma that surrounds seeking help for such illnesses—is what led Health Promotion and Wellness to offer the training.

“Students are often afraid to speak up because they think they’ll be perceived as weaker than their peers,” said Julie Edwards, Director of Health Promotion and Wellness. “We want to reduce the stigma around mental health and help students to understand that everyone goes through difficult situations in their lives. We want to get students the resources they need to be productive while they’re here and once they leave.”

Mental Health First Aid is a national program with an aim to take the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance abuse. Trainees become equipped with skills to identify when individuals are experiencing mental health or substance abuse problems and to provide support until they can seek professional help or until the crisis resolves.

Health Promotion and Wellness offered pilot Mental Health First Aid programs during the 2015-2016 academic year and is now hosting quarterly trainings for students, faculty, and staff. The content is standardized for trainees across the country, but UChicago participants can also expect specific information on support and services available close to home, such as the UCPD, Student Counseling Service, or the Dean-on-Call, as well as UChicago data on mental health.   

Participants learn the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, psychosis, and substance use disorders, and discuss how to approach various scenarios with fellow trainees. Trainees are given tips on how to listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance, and encourage professional help and self-help.

For Olmsted, one of the most poignant moments of the trainings was discussing how to help someone who is contemplating suicide. The training cleared up misconceptions about how to approach a peer having a mental health crisis. “A lot of the training was about how to approach that space, including strategies for listening and providing verbal support,” Olmsted said.

“I know now how to recognize if another student is struggling,” added Matthew LaFond, a graduate student who also completed the training. “I hope others take the training, because it’s an easy thing to do but it can make a huge difference if you’re in a situation where someone needs help.”

Following the training, participants reported feeling more prepared to recognize when a peer’s behavior or appearance is a sign of psychological distress, motivate a peer exhibiting signs of psychological distress to seek help, and recommend mental health support services, Edwards said.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a friend, co-worker, or family member who has had a mental health crisis at some point,” Olmsted said. “Feeling prepared in that scenario is really important.”