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On college campuses, mental health emerges from the margins

Monday, January 9, 2012

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Mention first aid on a college campus, and most people will point toward the student health center, or perhaps an emergency medical kit in the nearest classroom or residence hall.

University of Missouri psychologist Christy Hutton has a different definition. As coordinator of a new Mental Health First Aid training program, she and partner Sharon Thomas-Parks are teaching campus employees who come in close contact with students -- from professors and deans to advisers and admissions officers -- how to better recognize and respond to signs of mental illness.

The training effort began a decade ago in Australia, with counselors in Missouri and Maryland among the first to bring the program stateside in recent years.

"Missouri is on the cutting edge of doing some really important work on mental health," said Hutton, outreach coordinator at the campus counseling center.

The nearly 200 people who participated in a 12-hour training session at the Columbia campus last week heard a barrage a statistics from the two women that drive home the pervasiveness of mental health problems on campus.

According to the pair, 75 percent of mental disorders develop before age 25. College students are 70 percent more likely to develop mental illness than other adults, and nearly 10 times more likely to have a drug or alcohol problem. They're also far less likely to receive treatment.

"You're more likely to come across someone who needs mental health first aid than someone who needs the Heimlich maneuver or CPR," said Thomas-Parks, a former university psychologist who is now a private consultant.

Throw in student stress over grades, finances, romances, job prospects and more, and the risk factors only escalate. The American College Health Association reports that between 28 percent and 37 percent of college students seriously consider suicide, which is the second leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 24.

Organizers hope that the sessions will also encourage participants to openly discuss mental health issues, which often remain on the margins, even after the mass shootings on campuses such as Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, Thomas-Parks said. The program is also offered to churches and community groups.

"Stigma is the biggest barrier for people with mental illness," she said. "Fighting the stigma surrounding mental illness is often worse than fighting mental illness itself."

The training helps participants learn how to identify depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse and other problems among students and co-workers. It offers additional resources, from websites to crisis hotlines, tries to puncture some of the common misconceptions surrounding mental health problems, and encourages campus employees to feel comfortable stepping outside their areas of expertise -- if only to encourage a student or colleague to seek help, not diagnose or treat the problem.

"We're not going to teach you how to be a therapist," Hutton told participants.

Lynn Carruth-Rasmussen, academic advising director for the College of Education, called the training "extremely helpful, and much needed."

"In the advising world, there's sometimes the perception that we just deal with students on an academic level," she said. "But we come into contact with all of these types of issues. We want students to know that we're here, and we're available."

From role-playing exercises to candid conversations about suicide, the training exercises made participants feel comfortable discussing issues that often invite discomfort, said Michelle Bollinger, a career services coordinator in the College of Education.

"It's been so taboo in the past," she said. "And now it's in the open."


Follow Alan Scher Zagier at http://twitter.com/azagier


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