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A New Avenue for Supporting the IHP Community

May 19, 2022
clarence smiles for the camera on top of a hill with a lake in the background
"I feel that I have more tools at hand to better assist others,” said Clarence Lee, DPT' 24, one of the students who has taken the Mental Health First Aid training.

Training sponsored by Wellness Council prepares 150 students, faculty, and staff to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health challenges.

By Kate Chaney
Office of Strategic Communications

On average, 123 people in the United States die by suicide each day and nearly 1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness, sobering statistics that show no signs of decline. In the first year of the pandemic alone, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%. 

The IHP is marking May’s Mental Health Awareness Month by calling attention to a new avenue for supporting friends, families, and communities. 

four orange squares form a cross logo above the words mental health first aid

It’s called Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training – a course that teaches participants to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental health challenges, including substance use disorders. Brought to campus in January, Mental Health First Aid offers members of the community the skills they need to reach out and provide initial help and support for those experiencing crises that they may come across during day-to-day interactions.

An international, research-based public health initiative, the MHFA training focuses on education and awareness of mental health challenges and empowers everyone – not just healthcare professionals – to become familiar with the signs of and offering support for those struggling. The training is positioned in a similar way to CPR training, which is widely accepted as a requirement for many clinicians and non-clinical professionals. Like CPR, MHFA offers community-based protocols for laypeople who are not healthcare providers so that they know what to do in case of an emergency, until professional health care can be obtained. 

“First aid for our mental health is just as important as it is for our physical health,” said Jessica Upton, Programming and Advising Manager in the Office of Student Affairs and Services. “Even though there might be invisible symptoms, as opposed to say a broken bone, there are definitely signs that you are able to recognize and take action on when it comes to mental health. That’s what we’re training our community to be able to do.”

Many who’ve taken the course already have expressed gratitude for its teachings.

“I felt a tremendous amount of internal resistance about approaching others regarding mental health prior to the course. While I still appreciate the difficulty of those conversations and the need to recognize the unique needs, preferences, and circumstances of each individual, I feel that I have more tools at hand to better assist others,” shared Clarence Lee, Doctor of Physical Therapy ‘24.

This impact was exactly the reason that the training was brought to the IHP. 

“We want people to feel comfortable talking about mental health challenges and those that escalate into crises,” said Jack Gormley, EdD, Dean of Student Services and Chair of the IHP Wellness Council. “If they're trained to know the difference between an early symptom or challenge versus an emergency, and they're equipped with a protocol to support their response, they can help those in need.”

How it Works

The training teaches a five-step protocol, referred to as the acronym “ALGEE.” To initiate the assistance, trainees are taught to:

  • Approach an individual who appears distressed or out of sorts, assessing risk before doing so.
  • Listen without judgment to what the individual may share. For example, they may note that they are having a bad day and potentially having a panic attack, or something more serious.
  • Give reassurance and information. This entails sharing information about relevant MHFA training and offering help. For example, offering self-relaxation techniques to regulate breathing or sharing some simple information about what the individual may be going through.  
  • Encourage professional help, given that temporary support from the MHFA trainee will not replace proper clinical care, or emergency assistance when needed.
  • Encourage self-care. For minor challenges, a reminder of stress and anxiety reduction techniques, and other self-care methods may be helpful. For more serious situations, when emergency help will be required, self-care is more relevant in the long term. 

The course requires trainees, known as Mental Health First Aiders, to take part in an eight-hour, instructor-led course in person or via Zoom. Those training to be instructors themselves invest in eight hours of pre-work, three days of Zoom instruction, and nearly a full day of post-work, rehearsal and practice, in addition to the time they then spend teaching it to others. Currently on campus there are five trainers: Upton, Gormley, Mike Boutin, Luella Benn, and Eliza Cutler. In addition, Emily "M" Meyer is a certified coordinator.

Looking Ahead

In January, the course was held twice and within hours each class filled up. Since then, it’s been offered more than a dozen times in total, leading to the certification of 115 IHP students and 35 faculty and staff. Given the strong demand, more training opportunities are in the works this summer and fall. 

Those who’ve taken it so far have shared that it’s allowed them to begin conversations about mental health with their peers and colleagues and given them a space to collaborate.  

“I'm so thankful to have signed up for the MHFA training because being making the right decisions during vulnerable times proves to be an invaluable skill and insight, in personal and professional circumstances,” shared Karen Levy, Master of Science in Nursing ’24. “This was a great safe space to share and empower approaches to high-risk situations.” 

Ultimately, the goal is to train as many at the IHP as are interested, and then extend this offering to the wider community of Charlestown. As more become trained, there is potential for the IHP to host an annual refresher course to bring together trainees and allow them to collaborate, network and share tips and stories of their application of what they learned. Eventually, this may even be extended to alumni

For Dean Gormley, the goal is to expand the network of Mental Health First Aiders in the community, so all are ready to support others when a crisis occurs. 

“You never know who will feel comfortable confiding in you,” he explained. “Someone might start to feel they can share their struggles with you and view you as their confidant and trusted voice. It’s our responsibility to be prepared for these conversations. This training is a gateway to that end.

For those interested in taking the course, upcoming offerings will be advertised in the IHP News and @IHPStudentLife on Instagram.