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How Mental Health First Aid can support student wellbeing

11 October 2021

Ensuring students get the support they need is a priority for us at Unite Students. Student Support Manager Jenny Dalzell explains what Mental Health First Aid is, how it’s embedded into our support service, and how we’ve seen it work in practice.

Mental health awareness has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, but ways of responding to and treating these issues are perhaps less discussed. That may be why, while everyone knows what physical first aid is, its mental health counterpart is less familiar to most.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is an important part of our student support toolkit, with mental health first aiders in all 25 cities in which we operate, and more than 80 in London alone. It involves evidence-based training that provides an in-depth understanding of mental health and wellbeing, and equips employees with the knowledge, practical skills and confidence to approach someone who may be struggling, provide them with support and reassurance, and signpost them to appropriate further support. It can be delivered online across four live sessions in a week, with learning activities (such as case reviews) made available in tandem, or face-to-face over two consecutive days.

The training covers mental health conditions including depression, suicide, anxiety disorders, self-harm, eating disorders and psychosis. These topics may sound like a lot to grapple with, but there’s recognition that the material may provoke some difficult feelings: the course emphasises the importance of having your own support network, so that you can reach out if necessary. However, the training also comes with its own safeguarding, with safety messages communicated throughout the course and the flexibility to opt-out of certain activities if necessary. Courses are held throughout the year, so anyone who isn’t yet ready to undergo the training can do at a later date when they’re more prepared for it.

Once the training is complete, it’s time to put it into practice. Here’s one real-life example of how Mental Health First Aid helped a student in our buildings.

The student approaches reception, asking the supervisor on the desk for a replacement key. Not an unusual request, and easy for her to sort out. However, while speaking to the student, the supervisor notices that the student appears to be distressed and doesn’t look like they’ve slept. The supervisor, having attended Mental Health First Aid awareness training the previous week, spots what may be signs of mental ill-health and asks the student to take a seat in a private space within the reception.

She asks the student a few questions, such as how he came to lose his key and how he’s doing generally, and the student shares that he’s been walking around the city for most of the night and is hearing voices. The supervisor reassures the student that she’s here to help and, given the nature of the issue disclosed, calls an ambulance to ensure that he can be assessed in hospital by medical professionals. When the student returns to campus, he’s taken under the care of the community mental health team and is able to access further support from his university, while our city team also check in on him.

Because of the knowledge and confidence our employees took from their Mental Health First Aid training, they were able to pick up on these warning signs and follow it up in a professional way with clear boundaries – meaning the student was able to access support earlier than they otherwise may have.

This training comes with an additional benefit. One recently-trained mental health first aider shared:

“I have learned a lot, and now I feel more much confident in dealing with difficult situations that may arise, whether this is at work or at home.”

Equipping our employees with the tools to respond to mental health challenges in their personal lives is one step towards our sustainability commitment to enhance employee health and wellbeing.

Many of our university partners also utilise Mental Health First Aid in their student support offer, and we’re proud to be able to complement this with first aiders in our own buildings – ensuring more students get help and support before it reaches crisis point.

We have Student Support Managers in all our regions, who work with our university partners to ensure we deliver a connected student support service. Read more about our recent Student Support service improvements.

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