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Mental Health First Aid classes proving to be a success on campus; more than 1,000 faculty, staff and students trained

Over the past two years, more than 1,000 University faculty, staff and students have participated in Mental Health First Aid training, joining an estimated 1 million individuals nationally who have embraced a public education program that teaches the risk factors and warning signs of mental health and substance abuse problems.

That so many across UNC’s campus have responded to the initiative demonstrates, in part, the public’s growing interest in understanding mental illness and addiction and a willingness to learn practical skills to help those in need, said Tara Bohley, program director for the School of Social Work’s Behavioral Health Springboard (BHS), which has been leading training efforts since 2016.

“I think it’s been so well received because the training addresses issues that are not often talked about but are issues that practically everyone deals with at some point because we all have family members or friends or know someone with a mental illness or who has experienced addiction,” Bohley said. “The program focuses on compassion and debunking the myths around mental illness and addiction, and it’s a bridge builder. It gives people the skills they need to talk about mental health and addiction in a helpful way.”

Research has shown that most mental health conditions begin by age 24 and that mental health issues are often a barrier to academic success. That’s why a better understanding of mental health and training are so vital for educators and for others who work regularly with college-age students, Bohley said. At UNC, Mental Health First Aid is offered as an 8-hour course and has been provided free-of-charge, thanks to a $373,388 federal grant that was awarded to BHS in late 2015. Although the BHS grant is expected to expire at the end of September, Bohley and other School officials are hopeful they can secure other financial support to sustain the program.

“I really would like to see the program continue because it’s helped so many people,” said Jodi Flick, a clinical associate professor who has taught most of the Mental Health First Aid classes. Although individuals generally sign up for the training, at least two dozen departments on campus have had BHS train most of their faculty and staff.

“We’ve even had doctors and nurses and psychologists take the class and say, ‘I thought I knew all of this,’” Flick said. “They realize that while graduate school taught them the causes of illness and the treatment for it, no one ever said to them, ‘If you see someone having a panic attack, just say this.’ People love it because it’s so practical.”

The mental health course focuses on the common risk factors and warning signs of anxiety, depression, substance use, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and schizophrenia. Through practice and simulations, the classes teach participants how to offer initial help in a mental health or substance use crisis using a five-step action plan. For the UNC course, all practice examples focus on potential scenarios on a college campus.

“For example, your colleague shows up at the library and seems really distracted and tense, and you ask, ‘How was his weekend?’ and he tells you that this horrible event happened. Then what do you say?” Flick described. “In the training, we have people work in small groups, and they actually talk through what they would say. As soon as you get people to stop trying to make it is so theoretical and break it down to just what they would say, they realize that it really isn’t that hard. But so often, people don’t know what to say, and they’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing and making it worse so they don’t say anything.”

Although research has shown that early intervention improves outcomes, the median amount of time before an individual meets the criteria for a disorder and the time they actually seek and receive help is 10 years, Bohley said. Mental Health First Aid is another resource that can help close that gap, she added. Ultimately, the goal of the training is to connect individuals to appropriate professional, peer, social and self-help care.

“So the more people that understand the difference between feeling depressed and having depression or understand the difference between non-risky substance use and at-risk use, the more opportunities we have to get people help,” Bohley said. “We also want to help people have more understanding and insight into their own behaviors so that they can get assistance or treatment before things become more problematic before families are disrupted, before incarceration or homelessness and all of these long-term outcomes that we know can occur when we miss the early signs and symptoms that were there or overlooked for whatever reason.”

At UNC, many of those who have enrolled in Mental Health First Aid have used their new skills far sooner than expected. BHS, which surveys participants three and six months after they have completed the course, routinely receives testimonial emails from individuals who report an overwhelming appreciation for the class, Flick said.

“The most common feedback is from people who say things like, ‘I took this class because I work with students, but I have actually used my skills with my sister, or my next door neighbor or this person I go to church with,’ ” she said. “I just recently heard from a man who two days after completing the class encountered an Uber passenger who was having a crisis and because of the training, he was able to encourage the passenger to talk to him and to get the help he needs. So people do see the need for the training, and that’s been great.”

As BHS seeks more funding to continue the mental health program, Bohley and Flick are also hopeful they can expand the training to other college campuses and offices across the UNC system. Educators are often the key to college students in distress accessing the help they need, Bohley said.

“The more we all understand how our mental health works and have the opportunity to get treatment and focus on wellness like we do with our physical health, then the better our outcomes are as a society and the better our students are in terms of being able to graduate and have productive futures,” she said.

UNC Chapel Hill faculty or staff who want to enroll in the course, can choose between one full day or sessions of two days or more. Dates, locations, and registration information can be found at: