Utilizing Mental Health First Aid on Campus

Dr. Patrick Lukingbeal, Director of UH Wellness, University of Houston

June 6, 2019

Dr. Patrick Lukingbeal is a 7th generation Texan from Houston, and joined the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services as the Director of UH Wellness in June 2014. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Individual Differences with an emphasis in Higher Education Administration from the College of Education, and currently serves as an adjunct instructor in the Masters of Education in Counseling program. He also received his Master of Education in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education (SAAHE) as well as a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies – both from Texas A&M University. He is passionate about helping students be successful while in college and promoting healthy decisions around all dimensions of wellness.
He has several years of progressive experience in various higher education capacities, including wellness and wellbeing, residence life, conduct and student activities. Previous to UH, he has worked at Rice University, Georgetown University, and Texas A&M University. On a national level, he serves as the Educational Events Coordinator for the NASPA Wellness and Health Promotion Knowledge Community, is a member of the conference planning team for the NASPA Well-being and Health Promotion Leadership Conference, and has served as a past national co-chair of the NASPA Gender and Sexuality Knowledge Community. He is also a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor through the National Council of Behavioral Health, and serves on the board of the Southeast Texas Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with friends and family, traveling the world, gardening, listening to music, Crossfit, and finding excuses to explore the great state of Texas.​

I remember the first time I had to ask someone if they were considering suicide – and I was terrified. I was a second-year student affairs graduate student at Texas A&M and working as a Graduate Hall Director in Residence Life. While the staff had undergone the 1-hour QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) training as we did every year, nothing truly prepared me for the conversation. “What if I said the wrong thing? What if I made things worse? What if the student said they were ‘fine’ and something bad happened after?” While I made my way through the clunky conversation, I knew it was not my best work.

Fast-forward 12 years. I am working as the Director of UH Wellness at the University of Houston and am teaching in the Masters of Education in Counseling program in our College of Education – needless to say, mental health education and support is my life. Since a graduate student, I have also been touched by the realities of the problem after losing both my siblings to mental health issues in 2010 and 2014. 

For me, what was a terrifying prospect (approaching someone about suicide) has become a passion as an educator, which is why I have become an ardent supporter and facilitator of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Training.  This past January in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of bringing this training to the NASPA Strategies Conferences for the very first time as an all-day preconference – in total 22 professionals from across the country were trained in the curriculum.

MHFA is an internationally recognized, evidence-based program that began in Australia in 2001. At present, over 1.5 million people in the United States have been trained in the 8-hour curriculum. The course teaches you to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and how to connect someone to appropriate professional help. Topics like depression, anxiety, suicide and self-harm, psychosis, and substance abuse are discussed. When I was accepted and trained to be a facilitator in June 2017, I was surprised that only one other person in my cohort of around 25 people was in higher education. I believe now more than ever, that MHFA can help us support our students.

It is well documented that most mental illnesses will manifest in young adulthood, the exact time many people choose to enroll in higher education (Hubbard et al., 2018 ; Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010). On average, about 1 in 5 people in the United States (approximately 46.6 million) live with a mental illness, whether they know it or not (National Institute of Mental Health, 2019). In the past two decades, colleges and universities have seen a dramatic increase in the number and complexity of mental health illnesses as more students gain access to higher education (NASPA, 2009). While many of our counseling centers have seen overcrowding and their resources stretched – even more significant issues remain. 

To begin, not every person who is in immediate need of assistance seek it out – in deaths from suicide, often you will hear family and friends say things like “I never knew something was wrong” or “they seemed like they had everything together.” Additionally, barriers to help-seeking including stigma, lack of information, cultural factors, and finances remain (Eisenberg & Downs, 2009). As administrators in higher education, we have the ability to address many of these issues through MHFA. 

 At University of Houston, I introduced Adult MHFA with the higher education module in October of 2017.  Since then, we’ve been able to train almost 500 faculty, staff and students by offering the course for free. I’ve taken this training on the road to all of our on-campus RAs, multiple academic departments, and other schools in the UH System.  I’ve also presented on the national stage about the program and how individuals can begin the process of establishing the training on their campuses.

Internal assessments of those trained at UH have shown us that individuals leave feeling more confident approaching or talking with a student in need, more comfortable in discussing mental health issues, and report being more aware of professional resources. A large percentage of participants also shared that they utilized many of the skills they learned from the training within a few weeks of attending – with almost half indicating they had had to ask someone if they were considering suicide.

The landscape around collegiate mental health will continue to be a challenge – but also an opportunity for us as administrators. By engaging all of our campus in the conversations around mental health and how to help someone (through programs like Mental Health First Aid) we will continue to break down stigma and barriers that would prevent someone from reaching out the in the first place.

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