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Western New England University promotes mental health support and resources through Mental Health First Aid certification and instruction across campus.

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Addressing the challenges with students’ mental health goes beyond the counseling center and health and wellness resources, and one university is hoping to get its entire campus community on board with meeting mental health needs and managing crisis situations.

Four out of five college students believe there is a mental health crisis on campus, according to a January 2023 survey of 1,200 college students from TimelyMD.

While mental health remains a concern for higher education, Western New England University administrators found that students, family, faculty administrators, staff and other partners within their community lacked practical skills to combat the issues.

As a result, WNE introduced Mental Health First Aid certification in 2019 and trained 16 of its personnel to serve as Mental Health First Aid instructors. The goal: get at least one-third of the campus community certified.

What it is: Mental Health First Aid is a program that teaches people to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. The one-day course provides tools for individuals to reach out and establish initial care and support for those in crisis.

The program “takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and help someone,” says Kristine Goodwin, vice president for student affairs at Western New England. “When more people are equipped with the tools they need to start a dialogue, more people can get the help they need.”

Along with being more confident in providing help to others, those certified report improved mental wellness themselves, Goodwin adds.

How it works: In January, 16 Western New England University employees completed training to become volunteer course instructors and, in turn, certify other community members.

Each of the 16 employees will conduct at least three certificate programs each year, with the total goal to be 35 to 50 percent of the campus community certified in Mental Health First Aid, Goodwin explains.

To date, more than 300 students, faculty and staff are certified as Mental Health First Aiders on campus, or around 6 percent of students and staff, according to the university’s facts and figures page.

All community members are eligible to become Mental Health First Aiders, but only staff and faculty serve as instructors, Goodwin says.

The president’s office is initially funding the certifications, and the university has a steering committee looking into long-term funding.

“Our WNE community is committed to providing the resources and enhancing the services to support mental health and well-being,” Goodwin says.

Feeling the impact: While Western New England does not have adequate data to assess the impact of MHFA on student success, other universities have introduced Mental Health First Aid among their campus communities and have seen a positive trickle-down effect from the program. For example, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have seen demand for more training increase significantly.

Western New England officials, meanwhile, are anticipating a “cultural shift” in the campus climate as certifications continue to grow, Goodwin says.

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