(Newswise)–Living through a pandemic has shown us all the importance of mental health like never before. Faculty across California State University’s 23 campuses know this first-hand as they interact with their students during what has been an exceptionally challenging time for many—both academically and personally.
While each CSU campus offers critical Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for students, some may be initially reluctant to seek professional help, but they may share mental health concerns privately with their instructors.
A 2021 survey from Boston University’s School of Public Health indicated that university faculty members are increasingly involved in responding to their students’ mental health concerns, yet report a lack of training on how they should respond.
How and when should instructors intervene if concerns arise about a student’s mental well-being? When is it considered a crisis? These are some of the questions CSU faculty have been exploring as they become certified in Mental Health First Aid, a virtual training program instructed by two CSU professors—Bonnie Gasior, Ph.D., professor of Spanish at Cal State Long Beach, and Darci Strother, Ph.D., professor of Modern Language Studies at CSU San Marcos.
Drs. Gasior and Strother are now offering the National Council for Mental Wellbeing-led trainings to faculty across the CSU—and the demand continues to grow. By the end of the 2020-21 academic year, they will have trained six cohorts comprising more than 150 CSU faculty as certified Mental Health First Aid responders.
Much like first aid training, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training prepares lay-people to provide aid to individuals in distress until they can be connected to professional help. In addition to reducing the stigma around mental health, the program teaches participants how to respond to common mental health and substance use issues that are sometimes exacerbated by the high-stress environment of college, and better equips participants to help students find social support networks and resources for recovery within and beyond their campus community.
After becoming certified to offer MHFA training and leading sessions for groups of faculty on their respective campuses, Gasior and Strother connected with Emily Magruder, Ph.D., director of the CSU Institute for Teaching & Learning, to create a university-wide training program in partnership with campus faculty development centers. After all, 75 percent of mental illnesses develop before age 25, making colleges ideal locations for early identification, and faculty are often in a position to serve as “first responders.”
During her 10-year stint as a CSULB faculty advisor, Dr. Gasior explains that she was always struck by the number of students who would confide in her about a mental health challenge. “For each student who came in with an academic problem, I would have another disclose a mental health issue,” says Gasior, who helped bring the faculty-focused MHFA program to CSULB as a Provost Leadership Fellow and was awarded a CSU Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award (FILA) for her efforts.
Similarly, Strother’s time as a department chair and as an ongoing faculty mentor convinced her that she needed more tools in her skill-set to support student success, and that knowing how to address her students’ mental health needs better would make her a more effective educator.
The program Strother and Gasior teach is specifically focused on training faculty and the unique challenges they may face when interacting with university students in the virtual or physical classroom.
“The whole idea is to enable faculty to feel that they can intervene. They can deescalate. They can have de-stigmatizing conversations and they can get that person to the appropriate professional to find the help that they need,” says Gasior.
A critical topic covered in the coursework is suicide, says Strother, explaining that they have participants go through an exercise in which they learn to develop a sort of “muscle memory” by asking another human being—even if it’s on Zoom—“Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
“It’s a really, really uncomfortable exercise. Every time I do it, it’s uncomfortable,” she says. “But we need to not be afraid to have those conversations and to have them in ways that are direct, and not stigmatizing.”
Strother points to data from a fall 2020 survey by the American College Health Association that reports 2 percent of college students surveyed attempted suicide in the last 12 months. “Not just thought about it, but actually attempted suicide. If you have 50 students in a class, one of them may have attempted suicide in the last 12 months. College professors need to know about that,” she says, adding that a faculty member’s ability to help a student get immediate attention can really make a difference.
Strother adds: “We should never be comfortable with suicide, but we should also never bury it because it’s out there. It’s among us. Students having thoughts of suicide may be present in every class that we teach, unfortunately. So faculty in all disciplines would be well-served to know what to do and to be able to have those conversations.”
Gasior and Strother emphasize that the faculty’s response and feedback on the MHFA trainings have been reaffirming and rewarding. “It speaks really highly to the dedication of the faculty in the CSU that so many of them are willing to step up to the plate and do this training on top of their regular workload,” Strother says. “The faculty are coming to this work because they see value in it. And because they’re incredibly committed to their students’ well-being.” Addressing student engagement and well-being is an operational priority of Graduation Initiative 2025, the university-wide effort to increase graduation rates for all CSU students while eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps.
Because the demand for MHFA faculty training has far outpaced the pair’s capacity to offer them, the CSU Institute for Teaching & Learning plans to expand the program in 2021-22 to add additional faculty instructors. In fact, their current coordinator, Sailesh Maharjan, a faculty member in psychology as CSUSB, will receive his instructor certification this summer.
“Just like every community needs as many people as possible trained in physical first aid, every community also needs as many people as possible who are trained in Mental Health First Aid,” Strother affirms. “It’s just something that strengthens communities across the board.”
If you are in crisis or considering suicide, immediately call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), call 911, or go to your nearest ER.