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School of Social Work provides free mental health training for UNC staff, students

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The School of Social Work is located inside of the Tate-Turner-Kuralt Building on Pittsboro Street.

Growing up, Alicia Freeman said she didn’t know how to take care of her mental health. 

She said there was a lack of resources within her rural, predominantly Native American community in North Carolina. 

As a member of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe, Freeman said the stigma of mental health was prevalent among those around her. 

"I look like people from my hometown, sound like them and everything — that's one thing," Freeman said. "But we don't necessarily think the same way."

The lack of attention toward mental health in her hometown led Freeman to ask herself how she could improve the accessibility of mental health resources. She is now the coordinator for the School of Social Work's Mental Health First Aid program at UNC. 

MHFA provides training for UNC students, faculty and staff at no cost and is available to other community groups. The eight-hour course can be completed in a single full-day session or as two half-day sessions.

The program, she said, is one way for students to notice and support one another’s unique needs. 

MHFA training is designed to develop basic skills in order to help participants respond to situations related to mental health crises or substance abuse disorders. It also helps participants identify professional resources that can provide additional assistance in those situations. 

Though the program first came to UNC in 2015, Behavioral Health Springboard director Sarah Reives-Houston said it is particularly timely now. The MHFA program is an initiative of the BHS within the School of Social Work.

After the campus-wide lockdowns on Aug. 28 and Sept. 13, Reives-Houston said MHFA can help establish and reinforce a sense of community after emergency events take place. 

“After the two lockdowns that we've had on campus, in the School of Social Work we've had a series of support sessions for faculty, staff and students to come together to have that sense of community to engage, to share, to talk, communicate,” she said. “Our mental health first aiders are there to help connect people to resources.”

Sam Deal, a School of Social Work facility planner who took MHFA training in 2016, said his decision to participate in the training was “wise” because emergency management for building occupants is a part of his job description. 

“During the course, we cover different types of things regarding mental health," he said. "Things like substance abuse, depression, suicidal tendencies. The course provided insight on how to identify some of those symptoms, and then how to offer resources to that individual.” 

Deal said he believes training like MHFA is needed everywhere because mental health is "something that's tied to every aspect of our lives."

“It’s helpful as a community to be able to identify when a community member is in distress —particularly mental health distress," he said.

Reives-Houston said there’s no title or specific demographic needed in order to receive this training. It’s universally applied to the general UNC population, she said. 

The training provides participants with information on how prevalent mental health issues are, information that Reives-Houston said helps to reduce stigma and bias associated with mental health and substance use. 

“In a lot of places, that's a barrier that keeps people from accessing resources," she said. "They're worried about how they'll be received and what people will think about them and sometimes they just don't know how to label what they're thinking and experiencing."

Freeman said communities of color face unique mental health impacts that come from racial trauma. She noted they face stressors that other communities might not.  

“There could be a fear of police and calling police and that may escalate situations,” she said.

Freeman said people may call the police in a mental health crisis because they are unaware of "988", the suicide and crisis lifeline. 

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Deal said MHFA training is vital when dealing with societal changes and having a better understanding of people's response to the “exterior stimuli.” 

“In order to be a progressive, forward-moving society and University, having an understanding of mental health awareness and mental health first aid is only going to improve the lives of our community on this campus,” he said.  

@kamrynhai

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