A new grant is providing funding to expand mental health outreach to Cal Poly Pomona students.
The three-year, $325,000 grant was made possible through Proposition 63, the State Mental Health Services Act approved by voters in 2004. The measure imposed a 1 percent tax on millionaires in California to help pay for mental health services.
“When students are healthy, they do better academically and graduate in a more timely manner,” says Catherine Schmitt Whitaker, interim executive director for Student Health & Counseling Services. “Oftentimes, students don’t realize we have services available or they hesitate to access them.”
The measure’s goals are to reduce the stigma of mental illness, increase the awareness of risk factors, and to provide students, faculty and staff with the skills and abilities to assist and help those they know.
Much of the focus is on peer-to-peer training to help people assist those who need help. Among those receiving training are residence advisors and student assistants at the Student Health & Counseling Services Wellness Center. The key is giving people the resources to know how to interact with someone who is struggling with emotional well-being, Whitaker says.
The Mental Health First Aid program is one service that will receive funding through the grant. It is a 12-hour program in which anyone can learn how to provide mental health “first aid”: the ability to identify, understand and respond to people who are experiencing distress.
“It’s like (learning) CPR,” Whitaker says. “If something occurs, you’re able to respond.”
David Lutman, a residence life coordinator, called the training the best he’d received on mental health and says it already has made a difference.
All resident advisors and resident life coordinators are required to be certified in Mental Health First Aid, because they are usually the first point of contact for students living in residential communities, he says. Last academic year, one resident advisor noticed a student exhibiting signs of mental illness and was able to use the training to de-escalate the situation and convince the student to seek appropriate professional help, Lutman says.
“Thanks to Mental Health First Aid, the resident advisor was able to respond quickly, calmly and naturally,” he says. “Meanwhile the student is doing much better.”
“The training is a great tool to have in the event something should happen,” says Cherrie Peters, an administrative support coordinator at the Career Center who also was trained. “It’s best to be prepared by proactive steps than reactive without training.”
The grant has paid for two staff employees to become certified trainers in mental health first aid. There are now five active mental health first aid trainers on campus. The goal is to train an additional 100 people to provide first aid.
In addition to peer-to-peer training, the grant will also focus on promoting on-line services related to mental health awareness, assessment and appropriate referral and connection to resources. One resource is Student Health 101, a monthly web-based newsletter that is available to any student, faculty or staff member. Five hundred fifty-two students accessed the newsletter in April.
Student Health and Counseling Service staff have seen an increase in people using mental-health-related services in the last two years, Whitaker says.
“It may not be that more is going on,” she says. “It’s that individuals are more willing to reach out and say, ‘I need assistance.’”
College students definitely experience stress and anxiety from academics, family matters and financial hardships, Whitaker says. They also get absorbed in social media and other activities that can make it more difficult for them to progress academically or toward other goals, she says.
Students today have access to more information and media than 20 years ago, so that may affect their ability to disconnect and care for themselves, Whitaker says. But academic institutions have come a long way from the 1970s and 1980s, when very few services were provided to students with cognitive limitations or attention-deficit issues.
Today, there is much more awareness about and services for students experiencing different types of mental health conditions, including veterans.
For example, as part of Suicide Prevention Month this September, the Wellness Center has created a video message supporting suicide prevention efforts. The center also has additional resources on suicide prevention for faculty, students and staff.
Other opportunities on campus include an Active Minds club for students. The club is intended to educate students on mental health and wellness and create an environment where students can speak openly about those issues without any stigma.
In addition, Student Health and Counseling Services will hold an Oct. 1 event, “Creating a Thousand Lights.” The campus community is invited to stop by the University Quad from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. to light a candle to support those affected by mental health problems or suicide.
Students who are experiencing a crisis can see a counselor at Student Health & Counseling Services during university hours. After hours, crisis counseling is available by calling (909) 869-3220. If students know someone who is threatening to do harm to others or themselves, they should call police immediately by dialing 9-1-1 from an on-campus phone or (909) 869-3070 from a cell phone.
(Photo: Marla Williams works with residence assistants on how to recognize mental health problems during a class at the Residential Suites.)