Founded in 1795, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill is the nation’s first public university. The university enrolls approximately 30,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students who are taught and cared for by more than 12,000 faculty and staff. In the past two years and with support from a state grant, UNC has managed to train approximately 900 of their staff and faculty in Mental Health First Aid.
Tara Lea Bohley, the director of UNC’s Behavioral Health Springboard, a program which links current research to mental health initiatives on campus, shared a few of the major driving factors behind the university’s decision to offer staff and faculty the opportunity to participate in Mental Health First Aid training. When speaking about the reasons for adopting Mental Health First Aid at UNC, Bohley first mentioned the ability of Mental Health First Aid to help students feel more supported:
“Foremost, our students need support, and we wanted to maximize the level of support they receive. You have this population of people that are age 18–25, who are at a most vulnerable age, and they find themselves in an environment that is a unique social microcosm with little access to support. Why wouldn’t we equip those around them with the initial tools to identify distress symptoms, and the confidence and knowledge to intervene if needed?”
Bohley also highlighted that the decision to train staff and faculty in Mental Health First Aid was influenced by the fact that staff was much less transient than the students, which would likely give them the opportunity to help future generations of UNC students. Furthermore, Bohley saw that encouraging staff and faculty to participate in Mental Health First Aid would not only benefit students, but it would also help UNC staff and faculty to navigate difficult mental health related situations in their own lives and with their families, resulting in a more effective workforce.
Yet another reason driving the decision to offer Mental Health First Aid to staff and faculty is that it makes good business sense for the university. Bohley explained, “Recognizing signs and symptoms and intervening at the right time would not only prevent a risk management situation, but can also help the university increase learning outcomes by ensuring students graduate on time and also potentially decreasing dropout rates for those living with mental health issues.”
The training’s value to the students and the university’s culture can be seen in the demand it has generated among staff and faculty through word of mouth. As the number of people who have completed the training has increased, so has the widespread demand for participating in the course, indicating that faculty and staff members are able to derive clear value from the training.
Bohley said that a culture change has taken place throughout the university as a result of training staff and faculty in Mental Health First Aid.
“The conversation [around mental health] is happening much more than it was before,” Bohley said. “Many staff and faculty members have hung signs on their door, advertising with pride that they’ve been trained in Mental Health First Aid and encouraging students who might be struggling to reach out for help.”
As part of running Mental Health First Aid training at the school, Bohley collected testimonials from those who have been trained. Not surprisingly, some of staff and faculty go into vivid detail, recalling situations where they felt empowered to recognize symptoms of mental distress and intervene in an appropriate fashion because of the Mental Health First Aid training. For example, a faculty member recounts using the ALGEE method with a student quite soon after being trained: “I recently assisted a student who was having a major mental health crisis. I never thought I would really need to use the training at all, let alone this soon (approximately 4 months after training). I was able to apply the nonjudgmental listening skills we learned in a space in which the student felt less threatened.”
A human resources associate at UNC also demonstrated how they used Mental Health First Aid skills in their personal life outside of the university context: “I drive when I am not working for UNC, and encountered someone who was experiencing a crisis. Thank you, thank you, thank you for enabling me to talk with him reasonably and productively. I have no doubt that without the training, I would have simply said, ‘Best of luck! and dropped him off, alone, at his destination – a hotel, where he wanted to get away from his family… I was able to persuade him to return home and get the help he needs from his family and professionals.”
Another human resources specialist also wrote a testimonial about how Mental Health First Aid proved useful in their personal life: “Last night I was able to successfully support a loved one experiencing a mental health crisis. I was able to stay calm and think through ALGEE to help the person. I’m really glad you had us run through what ALGEE stood for several times in class because I was able to remember it clearly.”
From a tactical perspective, Bohley mentioned that the best way to train staff and faculty is to offer weekly classes and to vary the times when the courses are offered to accommodate a variety of staff schedules. Bohley has also learned that splitting the eight-hour course into shorter segments enables more staff and faculty to attend, as many cannot afford to dedicate eight consecutive hours to the training.
In terms of staffing, Bohley has found hiring a dedicated Mental Health First Aid trainer to be the most effective way of offering the program on campus. Paying for the dedicated trainer’s salary is essentially the only expense for running the program besides the cost of the Mental Health First Aid manuals since the university is able to provide the rest of the infrastructure needed to deliver the training.
Moving forward, given significant demand on campus, Bohley aims to sustain the weekly offering. She has been working to secure grants from different departments on campus to fund the program for the near future, with the larger goal of embedding the program within the University of North Carolina system, which is composed of 17 campuses across North Carolina, and potentially including the training as a part of the employee benefits package offered by the university.