The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday June 3rd

School of Social Work program trains UNC community in mental health aid

Supported by a federal grant of almost $400,000, the Behavioral Healthcare Resource Program at the UNC School of Social Work has been providing free Mental Health First Aid training for faculty and staff at UNC since January 2016 and will continue until summer 2018. 

Sri Kalyanaraman, a graduate student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health who participated in the course, said it has a specific goal but is applicable to many different situations.

“We’re not training to be psychologists or social workers,” she said. “We are training to triage and how to de-escalate someone who might be in the midst of a mental health crisis, whether it’s an alcohol abuse problem or thoughts of suicide.”

Kalyanaraman said the workshop uses a combination of role-playing, videos, group activities and games that challenge stereotypes in the training process.

UNC Human Resources Specialist Miranda McCraw said the program has helped in her responsibilities of providing the best possible support for her employees in all aspects of her work.

McCraw said the course provided a five-step action plan to guide oneself through another’s immediate and crucial situations. This plan includes steps, like assessing the risk of suicide or harm, listening nonjudgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging appropriate professional help and encouraging self-help and other support strategies, that, when combined, create the acronym ALGEE.

“Being able to recall ALGEE in times of high stress produces a calming effect for both individuals involved," she said. 

Professor Tara Bohley, one of the coordinators of the program at UNC, said the program was originally created in Australia in 2000 by Betty Kitchener, a nurse specializing in health education, and her husband Tony Jorm, a mental health literacy professor. 

“Betty’s personal experience with recurrent major depression spurred her and her husband to create a curriculum, in the spirit of traditional First AID and CPR, which would teach a layperson how to respond to a person in need of help due to a mental health or substance use problem,” Bohley said. “It has since been adapted in 20 countries, each with their own culturally relevant materials."

Bohley said the program has reaped valuable rewards not only for the program participants but also their peers.

“I had never trained a curriculum with such an immediate return on investment and where participant learning is so immediately evident,” Bohley said. “Participants sign up for the course hoping to learn how to help others, but ultimately leave thinking about themselves and their own loved ones in a different light.”

The Learning Center Assistant Director Bob Pleasants, who participated in the program, said he learned information he thought was relevant to his position.

“It’s especially helpful for those of us who work with college students, because many of these issues first manifest in late adolescence and early adulthood,” he said. “My colleagues and I wanted to become more informed and prepared to support students in any way we can.”

Pleasants said overall, the Mental Health First Aid Program has served its mission well.

“The detailed info about prevalence was helpful, and the specific instructions for how to respond in a crisis were practical and realistic,” he said. “The training here at UNC was also tailored to those of us who work with college students.”

Faculty chairperson Bruce Cairns said he believes that all who can should take advantage of the program.

“To my knowledge, there is no faculty requirement for mental health-specific training, but all of us need to be aware of the issue and be supportive of anyone in our community who needs help or other resources.”

Cairns said he is very pleased with the course and its growing prevalence at UNC.

“Mental health issues increasingly impact our university community, and I applaud the Behavioral Healthcare Resource Program at the UNC School of Social Work for securing the federal grant that supports this program,” he said. “I’m very proud that Carolina is doing this kind of work — it’s very important.”

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