Mental health training, help options are still growing

Significant faculty and staff enrollment in the RESPOND training this summer illustrates the campus community's growing commitment to better mental health. The eight-hour course provides an overview of symptoms associated with mental health problems and offers an action plan for participants when they see someone in need of help. Participants learn effective listening skills and how to ask important questions.

New program

This is the final summer student counseling services will offer RESPOND training. Beginning this fall, mental health first aid training will replace it. The new full-day training is evidence-based and updated regularly. Staff members across campus and members of the ISU police department are certified to conduct the training. Training sessions for faculty and staff will be scheduled during winter break and summer session. Departments and units (up to 30 people) interested in training prior to those times can contact the ISU police department.

This summer was the first time an additional training -- which has been conducted for seven years and can accommodate 45 people at each session -- was added to meet the demand.

"The training involves instruction and interactive components that allow us to role play and ask the hard questions about suicide," said Michelle Roling, student counseling services outreach director.

Roling said it is important faculty and staff recognize the signs of someone in distress and know how to connect them with assistance because 1,100 college students die by suicide yearly in the U.S.

"Of those that died by suicide, 86% never reached out for official services through their campus counseling center," Roling said. "We are really dependent on our colleagues to be vigilant, know the signs and symptoms, and especially know how to connect or refer someone to the appropriate services on campus."

Roling said training like Question, Persuade and Refer, which is offered every other week during the academic year, and RESPOND are like CPR training. It prepares faculty and staff for a lifesaving moment, but the intent is not that one person provides all the help. Trainings also help people look closer at their families or themselves to ensure they are getting care.

Helping hand

Student wellness director Brian Vanderheyden said faculty and staff understand mental health is one of students' biggest challenges because they see it in the classroom and in their work.

"Every year I have been here, staff and faculty awareness continues to go up and, because of that, it leads to more skill development, conversations, education and how they connect students to resources," he said.

Vanderheyden said the increased interest in trainings like RESPOND reflects the fact that faculty and staff find themselves in a first responder role to help students. Students in distress typically turn to someone they trust first, like an instructor or advisor, he said.

"These trainings really focus on people in high student-facing positions and the skills to help a student in distress get connected to support," Vanderheyden said. "These people are not counselors or mental health professionals, so the trainings help people know their roles and boundaries."

Vanderheyden will help ISU transition to a Jed campus -- named for the son of the founders of the foundation who killed himself in college -- as one of the 19 strategic plan projects funded during fiscal year 2024. The Jed Foundation helps colleges and universities develop strategic plans to enhance the mental health of students.

"It is a four-year program that will begin in August with a needs assessment and the goal of having a strategic plan by the end of the year," he said. "In years two and three, we implement, and in year four we work on our evaluation and sustainability plans to continue in the future."

One community

Senior WorkLife and WellBeing coordinator Stephanie Downs said she has seen an increased awareness of mental health at all levels of ISU in recent years. She said she has experienced a significant increase in requests across campus to talk about self-care options, especially around burnout. Downs takes into consideration the person's life -- both at work and home -- when speaking to groups.

"Going through trainings like RESPOND or mental health first aid really helps prepare people for those conversations," she said. "Leadership at the university, from managers and supervisors on up, also has increased awareness around mental health."

ISU has not seen a significant spike in mental health issues, but it continues to outpace claims in other areas since the pandemic began, said university human resources director of benefits Ed Holland. Helping people identify and deal with issues combats insurance costs for medical and pharmaceutical needs.

More help

ISU has numerous programs that help employees deal with mental health issues. The Employee Assistance Program offers free counseling, life coaching, financial and legal consultations, elder care and child resources, and more. Therapy Assistance Online is an online library of interactive programs that help people learn life skills and bounce back from disappointments and stumbling blocks. There also are numerous Workday Learning trainings available, and ISU WellBeing provides tools that can help employees deal with issues ranging from financial to child care.

"There are different ways we are trying to help because not everyone is stressed about the same type of thing," Holland said.