How can we administer first aid in mental health emergencies if we feel that engaging with people (and often strangers) in distress is putting our own mental well-being at risk?
“I can’t deal with this and I don’t know what to do”
A few years back, I went to a workshop for lecturers and administrative staff where we exchanged experiences about talking to students in crisis situations or with mental health issues. What I took away from this really interesting afternoon is that – while I personally don’t feel emotionally burdened when students or colleagues tell me about more personal issues – quite a number staff members feel out of their depth, anxious, or uncomfortable with engaging on such a private level with the person sitting across from them. To me that makes sense: Most lecturers and administrative staff at uni are not trained to manage these situations and offer professional emotional support in moments of crisis (myself included). However, we are all too often confronted with students and colleagues alike who are struggling with the demands that working in an academic institution brings with it.
So what can we do as university staff when we are feeling so woefully underprepared and may feel that being confronted with private matters is more than we can deal with? I think we may be able to find at least some answers to this question by comparing situations of mental health crisis with situations of road accidents or other, rather physical crises.
Administering First Aid
I recently started learning how to drive and that includes first aid training in case of an accident. I am not a medical professional or a firefighter but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I can do to help an injured person even if I feel un- or underprepared to administer CPR or extinguish a fire: I can call an ambulance, secure the crash site, or move people to safety as long as my own safety is not at risk.
I think the same concept applies in mental health emergencies: I don’t need to be a mental health professional to provide meaningful assistance in mental health emergencies without overstepping the limits of my education, ability, and comfort. There are three actions you can take right now that I think can make a huge difference without us having to become mental health professionals or endanger our own emotional safety.
1.) “I can’t deal with this, but I know somebody who can” – Research mental health professionals and organisations near you.
For those among your students and colleagues who may be suffering from increased mental and emotional stress or may even be suffering from pathologies like depression or anxiety disorders researching these professionals and their contact data may feel like a colossal task that they cannot possibly accomplish by themselves at this point in time.
By having some idea about which organisations dealing with mental health crises are in your city or even close to your school or university will enable you to connect people in need with the resources and people they need. It will also give you a sense of being prepared for emergencies – similarly to knowing the number of emergency services and first responders in case of a road accident.
2.) “Here, take this flyer with you” – Put info on display inside and outside of your office
At our university, the Central Student Advisory Service already has compact flyers with on and off campus mental health organisations and their contact data. You can take those with you or ask for a digital copy to re-print at your own office. If you don’t have this already at your university or school, take half an hour to collect the most important contact info yourself and put them into a word document that you make available for your students and colleagues. Put them on display on your office door, on your desk, and have enough copies for people to take with them.
A lot of my colleagues and I already have a post-box next to our office doors from which students and other passers-by can simply grab a flyer without having to talk to anybody. That is especially important for people who are struggling but are not yet ready to verbalise their issues or who feel that the hierarchies at school or university are too steep to talk about their issues with staff members.
3.) “I can use my position to help those who can help others” – Advocate for additional funding for university and school counsellors
While this may not immediately fall under the category of “first aid”, I still think it is connected to it: If resources for first responders were as limited for EMTs or firefighters as it is for a lot of mental health organisations, I am not sure how many fires we would have to put out by hand. Mental health organisations and counsellors – especially the “first responders” among mental health professionals – are notoriously underfunded in Germany and elsewhere and waiting lists for long-term counselling are far too long to ensure immediate and in-depth assistance for people in dire need of it. Increased funding (especially for additional staff: psychiatrists, social workers, therapists, but also administrative personnel) will help to expand the capacities and shorten the waiting periods for counselling.
As teachers, lecturers, and professors as well as administrative staff we can lobby for mental health organisations in our institutions and support student initiatives who do the same 1. By showing how strongly we feel about mental health and self-care at our own workplace, we can raise awareness for these topics and make a lasting impact on the way resources are being distributed in our institutions.