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IC center wants 'Mental Health First Aid' in UI residence halls

BY EMILY BUSSE | DECEMBER 16, 2011 7:20 AM

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Most college students would know how to react if a roommate fell down the stairs or choked in the dining hall. But what if a roommate is excessively anxious, a friend stops eating, or a neighbor begins sleeping all day?

These could be the early signs of a mental illness, and local mental-health providers want to make sure more people know how to react when it matters most.

Stephen Trefz, the executive director of the Community Mental Health Center for Mideastern Iowa, and a team of staff members are working to implement Mental Health First Aid at the University of Iowa residence halls by the next academic year.

"We could just provide them with another tool," Trefz said. "Not to be mental-health professionals, not to be counselors, not to be psychiatrists … but to be able to be alert to those [symptoms]."

The Mental Health First Aid curriculum aims to teach people to recognize early signs of mental illness. It originated in Australia several years ago and has since spread to 14 countries, including the United States.

The 12-hour certification course is implemented in workplaces, community centers, and schools. Within the next decade, the program's website states, organizers hope Mental Health First Aid will become as common as CPR and First Aid training.

With the help of a federally funded mental-health block grant, Trefz received Mental Health First Aid training last spring and trained two more employees over the summer.

The staff then chose residence halls as a potential candidate for the training.

Trefz spoke with Sam Cochran, the director of University Counseling Services, about three months ago to get another opinion. Cochran said the initiative comes at a good time.

"Any kind of training that we can bring to the staff would be beneficial to keeping up with the students that live in the halls," he said.

In the last decade, he said he's seen an increase in the number of students who enter the university with a diagnosed mental illness. He attributes the increase to several factors.

One, he said he thinks high-school students are getting better treatments before coming to college, allowing them to make the transition despite mental illness. Two, he said, parents and students are more knowledgeable about resources at college and willing to move to a college campus. Three, communities have made headway in breaking down the stigma attached to receiving mental-health care.

Mental Health First Aid training, Cochran said, would fit right in to the UI.

"The entering students have unique kinds of stresses: new environment, new academics," Cochran said. "We want to be sure we're creating safety nets for them."

Trefz said their next step is to contact the UI residence-hall staff over winter break to see if they're interested in the training.

Director of Residence Life Kate Fitzgerald said she is open to the idea of exploring Mental Health First Aid training.

Current residence hall mental-health training consists of working with the University Counseling Services staff to train both the professional staff and student resident advisers to look for signs related to mental illness and refer students to campus resources.

"I think that we have been able to intervene before most issues get to a crisis level for both the student and the community," she said.

One potential roadblock both Cochran and Trefz acknowledged about instating the program is the amount of time officials would have to dedicate to the training curriculum.

The program requires providers to stay true to the exact lesson plan, including its handouts, PowerPoint presentation, and the total length of 12 hours.

But Fitzgerald said time would not necessarily be an issue.

Resident advisers already undergo a 10- to 14-day training period in early August as well as three rounds of classes to prepare for the job. Breaking up the Mental Health First Aid training curriculum and inserting it into the existing training wouldn't be difficult, she said.

But cost could also potentially pose a problem.

Trefz said providers of Mental Health First Aid training, such as the Mideastern Iowa center, have several options when deciding how to fund a training session.

With the UI, Trefz said they would most likely either ask the residence halls to foot the bill or ask UI officials to partner with them on applying for a grant. He said he's unsure about what the exact cost would be.

The UI residence halls are a self-sustaining entity, therefore, Fitzgerald said, they would have to look to students' fees to fund such a program.

"If it's going to cost a lot of money, that's going to be passed back onto students, and we're going to have to weigh how effective are we being now versus how much more effective would this curriculum make us," she said.

Trefz said it's up to the residence halls to quantify improvement. For him, it's all about getting it started.

"For us as providers, [success] would be just getting in the door, doing the training, and passing that information on," he said.


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