RIT offers mental health first aid training for students, faculty, and staff

Increasing confidence to offer support and connect with resources is the goal

C.J. Nilosek

Mental Health First Aid training is available to all RIT students, faculty, and staff. The free course aims to bolster a campus-wide approach to supporting student mental health.

A new training program for RIT students, faculty, and staff aims to bolster a campus-wide approach to supporting student mental health.

The goals of the training program are to build confidence in identifying when someone may be struggling with a mental health concern, to lean in to provide support in these moments, and to connect students with resources when needed.

Nearly 300 people have completed the Mental Health First Aid Training course last semester and have received certification from the National Council of Mental Wellbeing. The certification lasts for three years.

“I learned that mental health is very much like a web, it’s very much interconnected. One thing can greatly affect another,” said Mya Soto, a third-year biochemistry major from Seneca Falls, N.Y. She decided to take the eight-hour course one Saturday in September to help her in her role as a Student Wellness ambassador.

“My student job has a lot to do with well-being. This has been on my radar for a long time and I was very interested in taking this course,” Soto said. “I like being able to be that person that cares. Mental health challenges are on the rise, and it’s a very good skill to learn how this can manifest and metathesize to greater things, and how best to approach someone in a responsible manner who is having a mental health challenge.”

Soto says she has close friends and others she knows who have gone through mental health challenges. Her training, she says, will allow her to approach people in a well-thought-out manner that won’t stigmatize them.

“There has always been a stigma about mental health. But mental health is on a broad spectrum,” Soto said. “Some people have great mental health and can be diagnosed with a disorder, or have poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a disorder, and everything in between.”

More than a dozen instructors, all RIT faculty or staff members, have volunteered to become certified instructors for the program. They come from nearly every college of RIT, including the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, who are able to teach the course in sign language.

The sessions, which are free, consist of workshops and lectures, followed by small group discussions or discussions with all participants. Participants are trained to be alert for signs someone may be struggling, which may include a change in eating or sleeping habits, being irritable, having a drastically different appearance, or anything that is different from the individual’s normal baseline. Participants should come away with better confidence to approach those who may be struggling with a mental health issue and offer resource options, rather than acting as a counselor themselves.

Upcoming training sessions are scheduled in February and March, and more can be held if requested for groups. Sessions can be held for eight hours on a weekend, or broken up in two or more days, as long as the training is completed within two weeks of the start.

The program has already helped.

Elayne Fife-Collier, who completed the training last summer, noticed a student in her American Sign Language and Interpreting Education class who didn’t seem cheerful. At the end of the class, she asked if the student was OK, and they nodded.

“It wasn’t the right kind of nod, so I asked again,” Fife-Collier said. “But this time, I added that I’m available if they want to talk.”

Two days later, the student came into her office and said they were anxious, frightened, and heartbroken after learning their mother was diagnosed with a chronic illness. They were having a hard time focusing on schoolwork and going to classes.

“I offered to refer them to a counselor and I’ll keep an eye on them,” she said.

The student did visit a counselor and continued talking with Fife-Collier regularly. She said her student was grateful she was able to assist at a time when they needed it the most. “All I have to do is listen and support them,” she said. Her time with the student helped, and the student successfully completed the semester, with better feelings.

Beau Gibbs, a health promotion specialist in Student Affairs, is one of three coordinators for the program, along with Sara Engel, RIT’s Health Promotion coordinator, and Kristina Colleluori, associate director of Campus Engagement at Counseling and Psychological Services.

The program, made possible with a grant from the Patrick Lee Foundation, aims to have 42 trainings for 1,200 people this academic year.

“Our Counseling and Psychological Services saw a need to give everyone tools in their toolbox to sit with students or fellow colleagues when they are in discomfort or struggling, to point them in directions to receive some help,” Gibbs said. “You clearly do not become a therapist or counselor after one training, but the training will help you be able to take those personal connections and see what the next steps should be.”

Juan Alfaro, third-year biology major from Aulander, N.C., also took the training in September, not only to help him in his role as a Student Wellness ambassador, but to help others whenever the need may arise.

“I’m a firm believer when people are in need and struggling, I try to help them,” Alfaro said. “If people come talk to you, you shouldn’t be questioning how to help them. It’s an ongoing problem. It really broadens your horizons and opens your mind. Mental health is not one particular thing. People can be in different places in different times.”

He said the first step is being able to recognize signs a person may need help, such as if they are withdrawn or not acting like themselves or not completing their obligations. Then, he may be able to recommend some resources to help.

“I want to be able to understand what they are feeling, and I wanted to equip myself with the tools to point them in the right direction,” he said.

Alfaro hasn’t had the opportunity to use his training yet, but said “it’s always sitting in the back of my mind when I’m having conversations with other students.”

Another important feature of the training is that it also helps those who take the training take better care of themselves. Alfaro said he has learned to take more time to self-reflect, think about what he’s currently doing, and if he’s happy. If he needs a break, he’ll go on a drive or listen to music.

“College can be really taxing,” he said. “Take a step back and really take care of yourself. If I’m not taking care of myself, if something were to happen to me, I can’t go out and help somebody else.”

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