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April 11, 2012 Volume 33, No. 27

Counseling center offers staff, faculty training on mental health issues

Christy Hutton

HELPING OTHERS Christy Hutton, MU facilitator of Mental Health First Aid, hopes the program can reduce stigma about mental health issues. The next campus two-day training session begins May 24. Registration deadline is May 17. Rob Hill photo


Nearly 200 MU employees trained since last summer

Many first responders at fires, accidents and in the aftermath of natural disasters are Red Cross volunteers. Typically they are trained in CPR, basic First Aid and how to communicate with people experiencing physical trauma.

But what about mental trauma? The Red Cross and many other health organizations don’t train first responders on how to handle mental health crises, even though each year 25 percent of Americans experience psychological dysfunction. The MU Counseling Center in Parker Hall is helping change that through Mental Health First Aid, a 12-hour training program over two days offered at no cost to participants. The next session is May 24 and 25.

Participants are taught to spot and handle basic needs of people in mental distress. A responder remains on site with the person until the situation is resolved or a professional takes over. A quick and timely response to someone experiencing psychological trauma can quicken recovery, said Christy Hutton, MU facilitator of Mental Health First Aid.

“The earlier people get help, the more likely they will return to a full life,” she said.

Since last summer, nearly 200 Mizzou faculty and staff have completed the training. Feedback has been largely positive, and some participants have already used their training in real-life situations. 

Robert Stagni is a Residential Life residence hall coordinator who took the class eight months ago. Last semester, Stagni helped a distressed student holed up in her room who had a history of cutting herself. “From the moment I entered the room,” Stagni said, “I felt I had the tools to handle the situation.”

A Red Cross for mental health

Mental Health First Aid was developed in 2001 in Australia by nurse Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm, a mental health researcher at the University of Melbourne. They envisioned a sort of Red Cross for mental health. Over the years, the program expanded in Australia and to other countries. In 2007 Betty Sims, a former Missouri senator and today secretary of the Missouri Department of Higher Education, heard about Mental Health First Aid and helped bring it to America. 

The program is administered by the National Council for Community Behavioral Health Care, the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Missouri Department of Mental Health. 

In the United States, about 45,000 people have completed training and about 1,000 have become certified instructors. There are eight U.S. training sites. The University of Missouri’s training is supported by Jim Spain, vice provost of undergraduate studies; George Justice, dean of the Graduate School; and Katherine Scroggs, vice chancellor for student affairs.

The Mizzou classes differ from those offered in other parts of the country in that, rather than have a class of 20 participants, MU registers up to 80. Larger classes are economical, Hutton said, and feedback from participants indicates that large classes don’t negatively impact learning.

That may be because of the class’s structure. Though there is formal instruction about spotting psychological distress, much of the class is spent in small groups engaging in activities, discussions and some role-playing of the interaction between a first responder and someone in crisis. 

So far, community members have received the most training, and the program is expanding into companies, nonprofit organizations, grade schools, health care centers, law enforcement, and more colleges and universities, Hutton said.

First Aid in action

Jess Soete, an academic adviser at the School of Nursing, said students often open up to her about their stress and depression. After taking Mental Health First Aid last January, Soete said she’s better prepared to respond to their needs. 

Shortly after completing the course, Soete was advising a nursing student who was anxious, depressed and considering dropping out of nursing school. Soete calmed the student by being friendly and nonjudgmental. She walked the student to the MU Counseling Center, which helps troubled students and consults with faculty and staff about students. 

Last month the teenager, now receiving regular counseling, thanked Soete for taking the time to help her, Soete said.

When Stagni, the Residential Hall coordinator, helped the distraught teenager in her room, he relied on his First Aid training that taught him how to ask questions when someone is experiencing dark moods. Stagni learned that the student was depressed about her grades, personal life and family. She confided her history of cutting herself.

Stagni helped put her concerns in perspective. He removed all sharp objects from her room. He was glad she was flying home to visit her family the next day, since the change of environment would likely better her mood.

“I felt very comfortable and calm asking her questions,” Stagni said. “My calmness helped put her at ease.”

Stagni learned later that, after returning from home, the student was cheerful and talkative. She seemed to be her old self.

There are many cases like Stagni’s in which first responders have diffused an escalating situation, Hutton said. 

But Hutton also hopes that more people entangled in the web of psychological malaise will feel comfortable asking for help. Typically what stops them is the stigma surrounding mental health, she said.

“Stigma comes a lot from fear and lack of information,” Hutton said. “But everybody gets anxious and depressed. We just do it to different degrees and in different ways.

 “If people weren’t afraid to acknowledge their distress,” she continued, “they would get the help they need more quickly and the problem would have less impact on their life.”


Mental Health First Aid training

When: 8 a.m.–5 p.m. May 24, and 8 a.m.–12 p.m. May 25

Where: The Reynolds Alumni Center Ballroom

Registration: No charge for the training, but the registration deadline is May 17.

For more information, visit or email 


Other MU mental health programs

• MU Counseling Center: helps psychologically troubled students and consults with faculty and staff about students.  The center oversees Mental Health First Aid. Visit

• Employee Assistance Program: a confidential service provided to all employees, their families and organizational work units regarding personal concerns, anxiety and stress. Visit and click on the tab Employee Assistance Program.


Action plan for helping someone in crisis:

• Assess for risk of suicide or harm

• Listen nonjudgmentally

• Give reassurance and information

• Encourage appropriate professional help

• Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Source: Mental Health First Aid