Mental Health First Aid course helps students overcome stigma

Mental Health First Aid is a one-credit course at George Mason University that teaches students how to help people facing a mental health crisis.

For Abigail Allen, a senior Criminology, Law and Society major who is also a resident advisor, the course was an opportunity to see how she could  transform or maybe even save lives.

“I wanted to be able to best help out people I was serving as an RA, and I wanted to learn more for myself, too,” Allen said.

About 20 students enrolled in two sections of the course in the fall; it is offered again this spring.

Many college students struggle with mental health issues, according to data from the American College Health Association’s fall 2016 National College Health Assessment report that shows 66 percent reported feeling “very sad,” 60.8 percent reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” and 10.4 percent said they “seriously considered suicide” over the past year.

Katie Clare, assistant dean of undergraduate academic affairs in George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, taught a section of the course in the fall. Clare is a certified mental health first aid instructor.

“It’s about reading the situation,” she said of providing mental health first aid to those in need. “It’s about being thoughtful, honest, caring and asking the right questions to get clarity—figuring out how to ask the right questions at the right time.”

The candid discussion about anxiety and depression that students engaged in during a recent class contrasted sharply with the stigma that can shroud mental health issues in our culture.

“It’s great to be open about it, to talk about it honestly,” said Allen, who added that she has experienced depression, anxiety and bulimia. “That’s so important to get past the stigma of our issues.”

Fernando Barrientos, a junior majoring in psychology, said students in the class are building bonds as they discuss mental health challenges.

“Everybody here in class is very open about their lives. It can even turn into group therapy sometimes,” Barrientos said.

Students in the course get a first-aid action plan and practice empathetic listening skills.

“Before I took this course, I was worried about people getting defensive if I asked them about their feelings,” Barrientos said. “But now I feel more confident about trying to help the people I know who are going through a crisis.”

Whitney Hopler is the Communications Director for the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.