Over the past few years, awareness of mental health issues has grown and the wellbeing of students and staff is never far from the media. There seems to be general agreement that better support is required, which means equipping more people at colleges and universities with skills to deal with those in distress.
There are specialist wellbeing services, with counsellors and GPs, and education providers are among many organisations, including Jisc, which also train staff as Mental Health First Aiders.
But during their time at university, many students will likely spend more time around frontline staff such as receptionists, administration or facilities assistants, than their tutors, lecturers or wellbeing staff. It’s important that these invaluable individuals feel confident to manage distressing situations well because those experiencing distress can really benefit.
Mental health training: taking the right approach
Now, following requests from members and a successful pilot in July, Jisc has developed a new training course to help frontline staff at colleges and universities grow this confidence and build understanding of the human emotional experience. This takes time and there is no substitute for experience, as I know only too well.
My first role in mental health was as a volunteer with a service running self-help courses about emotional difficulties. I had no specialist training and I didn’t know much about mental health, but I frequently received positive feedback and praise, simply because by default I tend to be calm, friendly and empathetic.
I welcomed people, helped them get to the right room, made drinks and met panic, aggression and tears with kindness and patience. Being nice seemed like the best option.
Later, having completed my training and gained a few years’ experience as a mental health practitioner, I began to understand why my approach had generally been successful. I also greatly appreciated the significant role frontline staff play in how - or whether – distressed people engage with support.
I treated a young woman who had been on the verge of leaving while she waited for her first appointment and was persuaded to stay by a kind receptionist; and a very angry man who would never have sought help if it weren’t for a caretaker at his son’s school who hadn’t got defensive when the man ranted about parking spaces.
Developing understanding and resilience
But it isn’t just the wellbeing of the person in turmoil that matters. Despite anyone’s best efforts, some situations don’t work out well and even those that do can leave the helper with difficult feelings and thoughts. Part of the reason for developing this course was to ensure that staff have the knowledge and tools they need to support themselves and to understand the normal (yet often unspoken) ways in which distressed people commonly react.
I recall an aggressive, opinionated and offensive individual who was very disruptive. While I was able to calm him, I was left feeling angry, belittled and frustrated and, worse, I was ashamed of those feelings; this person had been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition and it felt ‘wrong’ to be angry with someone so vulnerable.
It took years to develop the courage to be open about these reactions, but once I talked about it and was able to understand why I reacted as I did and that it was quite normal, I vowed that I would never again shame myself for being a perfectly ordinary human being.
Our training, which takes a broad look at all sorts of emotional difficulties, as well as mental health conditions, provides the opportunity to build skills and knowledge, with space to practice, discuss and gain understanding using example scenarios.
We will also be encouraging people on the course to share best practice, so members can learn from each other.
Steve James, who has ten years’ experience as a mental health practitioner in the NHS and a national military charity, will deliver the next training course across two two-hours sessions on 24 and 27 September. You can book your place now, or for more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01235 822242.