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The Importance of Mental Health First Aid Training and How To Identify Students At Risk

By Tessa Heitkamp, PharmD Candidate 2020

     In 2018, approximately one in three freshman reports mental health problems in the past year1. These mental health issues were also associated with reduced academic functioning. The article summarizes the steps to identify students at risk and offers additional resources faculty can utilize to combat this growing problem.

     College student anxiety and mental health concerns are at an all time high, especially students enrolled in a demanding degree such as a PharmD program. Studying a subject in the medical field increases the risk factors for mental illness due to the high degree of coursework and consequences of sleep deprivation, a high stress environment, and countless extracurricular activities. A study at the University of Michigan Medical School found that 14.3% of medical students experience moderate to severe depression2. They also found that third- and fourth-year students were more likely to report suicidal ideation.

     With high rates of mental health concerns in the across campus, Mental Health First Aid training is vital for both professors and students to help identify at risk students. Not only does this training teach people the warning signs of mental health problems, but the 8-hour training course also teaches people to identify, understand, and response to signs of addictions and mental illnesses. Faculty, staff, and student advisors should have a basic understanding of warning signs of mental health problems. In addition, it’s important to know whom to turn to if one has questions or concerns about a student’s behavior and how to access crisis support and other mental health services. Mental Health First Aid training provides all of these resources and more. Faculty will also learn how to stop fear and hesitation from starting conversations about mental health by improving understanding and providing an action plan to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder.

     Improving knowledge, skills, and self-confidence to support a student or peer experiencing a mental health problem is becoming a necessity in a high stress environment, such as college. Metal Health First Aid has been shown to improve mental health knowledge, recognition of mental if disorders, and confidence when helping a person with a mental health problem as well as reduce the stigma around mental illness3. Mental Health First Aid also produced the same results when completed by medical students4. These findings suggest that Mental Health First Aid training can not only help faculty to identify students, but also can help students identify risk factors within themselves and their peers. To learn more about mental health first training or to take a course click here! If you would like to start learning how you can help students, faculty, and your patients struggling with mental health issues, below are a series of steps you can take to start making a positive difference now!


Learn the Warning Signs of Mental Health Problems

  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Sudden onset of overwhelming hear for no reason, often including a rapid heart beat
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activity
  • Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still
  • Sever mood swings causing problems in friendships and in the classroom
  • Drastic changes in student behavior or personality
  • Extreme emotional response when asked about food and weight
  • Suicidal ideation or plan to harm oneself


Ways To Combat Mental Health Stigma

  • Educate staff, parents, and students on symptoms of and help for mental health problems
  • Help to ensure a positive, safe school environment
  • Encourage good physical health and reinforce positive behaviors and decision-making
  • Be aware of school-based and state-based mental health supports


Additional Resources:

Iowa Crisis Text Line: Text HELLP to 741741

Counselors provide specific skills with issues such as self-harm, suicide, depression, bullying, and LGBTQ issues.

Iowa Helpline: 1-855-800-1239

SAMHSA’a National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357 provides one-stop access to U.S. government mental health and mental health problems information. aims to educate and guide the general public, health/emergency preparedness professionals, policy makers, government/business leaders, school systems, and local communities

NAMI, the acronym for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a grass roots, self help, education, support, and advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals, families, and the community on mental illness



  1. Bruffaerts R, Mortier P, Kiekens G, Auerbach RP, Cuijpers P, Demyttenaere K, Green JG, Nock MK, Kessler RC. Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning. J Affect Disord. 2018 Jan 1;225:97-103.
  2. Schwenk TL, Davis L, Wimsatt LA. Depression, stigma and suicidal ideation in medical students. 2010;304(11):1181- 1190
  3. Morgan AJ, Ross A, Reavley NJ. Systematic review and meta-analysis of Mental Health First Aid training: Effects on knowledge, stigma, and helping behaviour.PLOS Journal. 2018; 13 (5)
  4. Davies EB, CBeever E, Glazebrook C. A pilot randomised controlled study of the mental health first aid eLearning course with UK medical students.BMC Medical Education.2018; 18:45.