A close family friend recently experienced a mental health crisis, in the first few weeks of his freshman year at college. He had trouble sleeping and stopped going to class. The way he described it, his mind just “didn’t feel right.” Before friends and family became aware of his situation, campus police had already escorted him to the local psychiatric hospital.
Mental health support is sorely needed on college campuses. A recent survey by the American College Counseling Association found that the mental health of incoming freshman is at an all-time low. Some attribute this to students’ concerns about paying for college tuition during this tough economic climate. Others say students these days are feeling more overwhelmed and pressured to participate in extracurricular activities.
Consider this: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students in the U.S. Approximately 1,100 deaths by suicide occur on college campuses each year.
For those who don’t think this is a problem in Georgia — think again. The Georgia Department of Public Health reports that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15-to-24 year olds. There are more deaths by suicide in the state than homicide. And these statistics don’t even address the costs to individuals and society of attempted suicide.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a groundbreaking public education program that allows colleges and universities to be proactive in addressing the mental health needs of their students and faculty.
The training program teaches how to recognize, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of various mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, with the goal of helping someone in crisis. The program also combats the stigma surrounding mental illnesses by creating open conversations about such illnesses, thus demystifying them.
MHFA goes above and beyond traditional college mental health services because it teaches lay people with no clinical training about how to react in a crisis situation.
At Emory University, a task force was created to assess mental health issues on campus. The task force found that, between the fall of 1995 and the spring of 2004, there were nine mental health-related deaths: seven by suicide, one by drug overdose, and one related to an eating disorder.
The task force’s recommendations included the funding of crisis management initiatives to educate Emory departments and divisions on appropriate responses to mental health emergencies and critical traumatic events. The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare has just the solution:
Participants who take the 12-hour MHFA training course learn about types of mental disorders, as well as how and when to approach a person who appears to be having a mental health crisis. The lessons are based on a 5-step action plan that includes learning how to:
- Assess risk of suicide or harm
- Listen non-judgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help strategies
The MHFA program has been implemented in 16 countries, and more than 15,000 people have been trained in the U.S. A study of 301 participants showed that those who completed the training course were more likely to advise peers to seek professional help and reported more knowledge of services and treatments. Overall stigma surrounding mental illness was also reduced.
Unexpectedly, the study also found that MHFA improved the mental health of the trainees themselves.
Mental Health First Aid is one new resource that will prove especially useful on college campuses nationwide. The implementation of this program will create a safer and more supportive environment for college students. It is time for schools in Georgia to step up and become leaders in the prevention of mental illness and suicide. Let’s get our youth some help before they end up in the hospital . . . or worse.
If you are interested in learning more about the Mental Health First Aid program, please visit the international website www.MentalHealthFirstAid.org. To schedule training sessions within the state of Georgia, please contact Ellyn Jeager, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, Mental Health America of Georgia: Ellyn@mhageorgia.org.
Kristen McLean is an intern at Mental Health America of Georgia, an advocacy group. She serves as project manager for the RESPECT Seminars, one of the organization’s programs that emphasizes the powerful impact that respect has on a person recovering from a mental illness. McLean is also a graduate student at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.