Skip to Content

Looking Out for Each Other: DU Brings Mental Health First Aid to Campus

Back to News Listing


Heather Hein

Senior Editor

News  •
Campus Life  •

Free one-day class for staff, faculty and students teaches how to recognize and respond to those having a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

Man on couch with head in hands

One in five Americans have a diagnosable mental health disorder—and that’s just of those who have taken the step to get help. Even more troubling for colleges and universities, Generation Z, or those who are currently between the ages of 12 and 27, have the worst mental health of any generation. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 15% of “Zoomers” aged 18-26 say their mental health or well-being is “excellent.”

On college campuses, the effect extends to those who interact with Zoomers, including faculty and staff. A 2023 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed found that, at private universities, 47% of students feel professors should help them during times of stress. Another survey by Boston University bears this out, with 80% of faculty saying they’ve had conversations with students about their mental health in the past year—despite having little or no training on how to do this.  

And then there’s the mental health of faculty and staff, who are not only being asked to help more but may also be in crisis themselves.

To help the DU community recognize and respond to those among us who are having a mental health challenge or have a substance abuse disorder, the University is offering a series of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) trainings that are free and open to all faculty, staff and students. The series is managed by the Health Promotion team within the University’s Health and Counseling Center (HCC).

Held in various locations on campus, the one-day, eight-hour training gives participants not only greater awareness of the issue but also specific tools and strategies to use as well as “Mental Health First Aider” certification.

“DU values the concept of a ‘community of care’ and looking out for each other,” says Jessie McGinty, director of health promotion, who is also an MHFA trainer. While mental health challenges are not uncommon, particularly in the transitional phases of college or graduate school, she says, “The more we talk about these challenges, the more we decrease the stigma, the better outcomes we have and the more resilient we become.”

'Well worth the day-long commitment'

Based on a program developed in Australia in 2000 and used by organizations worldwide, DU’s training includes topics such as defining and understanding the purpose of MHFA; types of mental health challenges and their impact; the stigma around mental health and how to reduce it; signs and symptoms to look for; the role of a Mental Health First Aider; and the steps to take when you encounter someone in crisis.

Jeff Banks, vice chancellor for human resources, was a participant at a recent training. “This training is well worth the day-long commitment to learn or receive a refresher on how to recognize [when someone is] experiencing mental health challenges, to listen non-judgmentally and to appropriately refer someone for assistance,” he says. “It also serves as a reminder that, as we seek to help others, we all need to be mindful to practice various forms of our own self-care.”

The need for the training became apparent last year, as the University completed an 18-month process to become a JED Campus. The JED Foundation is a nation-wide initiative that helps colleges and universities protect student mental health and prevent suicide by providing support, best practices and resources. Though Health Promotion already offers on-demand sessions for students on topics like Suicide Prevention and A Mental Health Toolkit, DU’s JED Task Force identified the need for more comprehensive training for everyone.

That’s when Provost Mary Clark, task force co-chair, stepped up to provide pilot funding from her discretionary budget for the first year of MHFA training. This meant the training could be offered at no cost to participants and that four staff could be brought on as trainers: McGinty; Austin Gane, coordinator of health promotion – mental health and suicide prevention; Therese Mashak, public health project manager in Enterprise Risk Management; and Meghan Dimsa, executive director of strategy and communication in Student Affairs and Inclusive Excellence (SAIE).

So far, the MHFA team has held 12 sessions, with more than 200 participants—mostly staff—taking part. In the future, HCC hopes to train more faculty and students, including residential advisors. Upcoming sessions are scheduled for April 22 and May 14. You can learn more and register here.

5 Tips for Improving Your Mental Health

Promoting well-being is one of the four dimensions of DU’s 4D Experience. We asked Austin Gane of the Health Promotion team for advice for anyone looking to improve their mental health, and here’s what he said.

1. Lower the bar for seeking improvement.

We can sometimes think of taking care of our mental health as a lofty task, only pursuable if we have plenty of time, resources and capacity. Try lowering the barrier for what it means—and what it takes—to care for your mental health. If therapy feels like it is not an option right now, share your feelings with a loved one or write them out to yourself.

2. Be your own friend.

So often we fail to give ourselves the compassion and grace we would readily offer to a friend. If your friend made a mistake, would you love them less or deem them a failure?  If they were feeling burned out, would you tell them to push through or would you tell them that they deserve rest? Be kind to yourself and unapologetically give yourself the love you give to others.

3. Self-care is not just what you want to do but what you need to do.

Being kind and forgiving to ourselves—whether that be indulging in a little treat, reigniting a connection or spending a day on the couch—is self-care, but moderation is important. It can be tempting to procrastinate doing unpleasant things we need to do by doing those things we enjoy in the name of self-care. However, if we avoid getting to bed on time, resolving conflicts that are stressing us or putting in the hard work to self-care, we are doing ourselves a true disservice.

4. Resist the urge to compare.

We tend not to see the darkest parts of other’s lives, so it can feel like everyone else has it together or you are the only one struggling. Ultimately, your mental health journey is just that: your own. Focus on what you need, what you are going through and what you can do—and ignore the rest. Your only goal should be being the best version of you that you are able to be in this moment.

5. Be persistent.

The path to mental wellness is not a linear one. It can be hard finding the things that bring you joy, the right therapist, or which medication works for you, so it is critical to remain invested and avoid discouragement. While moving from a bad place to a better one can be difficult, it is possible, and there is a wealth of opportunities available to support you. Do not let one dead end stop your whole journey.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can get help by reaching out to HCC at 303-871-2205 or calling the crisis hotline at 988.

Related Articles