New U program trains some staff, faculty on mental health advocacy

The new program trains mental health advocates to better assist students in various departments.

by Rilyn Eischens

A few dozen University of Minnesota faculty and staff were the first to receive training on how to spot signs of mental health issues — especially when distressed students approach them with concerns.

The new ‘mental health advocates’ completed training last month as part of a pilot program that organizers say could be an important step in promoting mental health at the University.

Trainees received a folder during their November seminar containing tips on how to identify and respond to distressed students They also received information on best practices for addressing threatening or disruptive behavior in the classroom.

However, trained faculty and staff aren’t equipped to serve as therapists, Disability Resource Center Director Donna Johnson said.

“The idea [is] to have a point person at the department or the college level … who knows everything about the resources,” said Lauren Mitchell, a psychology graduate student involved in the design of the program.

For example, a teaching assistant who hears concerns from a panicked student could pass that information onto a trained advocate in the department, Mitchell said. The advocate would be able to decide if the behavior is normal and address the situation.

The advocates will receive monthly emails regarding mental health services on campus and will take part in another training session in February, Johnson said.

At the end of the spring semester, the pilot program will be evaluated and expanded to include more advocates if it is successful, she said.

Many new advocates previously filled these positions informally, Mitchell said.

“Many of them have been winging it or just doing the best that they can,” she said.

Tim Kamenar, School of Public Health senior director for student services, said becoming an advocate felt natural because he previously served as the Disability Resource Center’s assistant director.

“I think it was a vital introduction to what exists on campus. All too often there is that lack of [knowledge about] what exists … and that creates uncertainty,” he said, adding that while he was familiar with most of the material covered in training, it was new information for many others.

Since the program launched in early November, Kamenar has already met with one student.

“If one consultation makes a difference for one student, that’s definitely worth it,” he said.

So far, Kamenar is the sole official advocate in the School of Public Health, so staff have worked to identify who’s already doing mental health work within the school to ensure student concerns are addressed, he said.

Kamenar has also sent the training materials and monthly newsletters to faculty and staff so they have those resources on hand.

“The [number one] referral of students to the DRC is faculty, so it’s important that we get that information to the faculty so they know who they can ask for information,” he said.

Kamenar anticipates that the program will impact the way mental health resources are managed at the University, he said.

“The demand is there. The need is there. The program itself … isn’t really going to go away because … student need isn’t going away,” he said.