Mental Health First Aid Training

mental health first aid

Mental Health First Aid training may be what campus rec professionals need in order to recognize and respond to the growing crisis. Katie White explains how it’s been applied and implemented at Towson University.

Amidst the rising mental health concerns of college students, it is essential we reestablish ourselves as campus partners in addressing student mental health.

As campus rec professionals, we are all highly trained in CPR, AED and First Aid which gives us the skills to provide “first responder” care to our participants when a physical injury occurs. How can we offer the same first responder care to our students regarding their mental health? With the right training, we can help students talk through their stressors early on before their well-being is in jeopardy.

And while much of our focus is on students, our professional employees need to be considered, too. We already know employees with young children and those in early career positions may experience significant work–family conflict and burnout that can lead to mental distress. Now they are balancing the demands of working from home, caring for children, and may also have furloughed employees and vacancies due to a hiring freeze.

In an article at the start of 2020, Lena Newlin of the University of Wyoming said it best, “Campus rec staff should be trained in how to recognize signs and symptoms of emotional distress, how to intervene, and how and where to refer students in crisis.”  

Mental Health First Aid  (MHFA) is a “course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training gives you the skills you need to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis.” It is a skills-based way for the lay person to gain the training Newlin recommends. Towson University Campus Recreation hosted this workshop on-campus and invited partners in student affairs to join us, including the director of the counseling center so he could gain a solid understanding of what we were trying to do while staying within our scope of practice.

Sometimes attending a workshop or training is more akin to checking off a box rather than providing tangible skills you’ll utilize right away. However, soon after this workshop several of our professional staff put the lessons into action in conversations with their student employees. We also created quick reference cards for when we have a student enter our office with a mental health problem. The training enhanced our confidence and comfort in discussing mental health, enough that we were able to offer a virtual mental health toolkit presentation to our student employees at the start of the pandemic.

It has been over a year since our team attended the MHFA workshop, and this spring we will be revisiting the information as a refresher, just like we do with CPR and First Aid training, because a training is only as good as the action steps you can remember. Let’s make mental health first aid as common as CPR.

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Katie White, M.Ed., serves as the associate director of programming and assessment at Towson University Campus Recreation. Her portfolio includes competitive sports and athletic training, fitness facility and programs, outdoor adventures, student development, adaptive recreation and departmental assessment. She has over 12 years of progressive campus recreation experience that includes three major facility construction projects and the creation of a dedicated wellness department. She is a graduate of Cleveland State University and Kent State University. Katie can be reached at kwhite@towson.edu.

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