Missouri to Implement Mental Health First Aid on College Campuses

Jefferson City -- The violent murder at Virginia Tech on Jan. 21, less than two years after the shooting there that took 33 lives, reminds Missouri's college administrators that campuses can harbor hidden dangers.

Campuses are like mini-communities, explains Angelette Prichett, research associate for the Missouri Department of Higher Education who works on campus security issues. "Each campus has many points of access to the bigger community, so they are vulnerable to the same influences that exist in society at large," Prichett says. "And, just as the Virginia Tech cases illustrated, students who are under extreme stress may go unnoticed, with potential consequences for campus security."

The Missouri Department of Higher Education (MDHE), partnering with the Department of Mental Health (DMH), will make Missouri one of the first states in the U.S. to train campus personnel in "Mental Health First Aid" to recognize and offer assistance to students who show signs of mental illness.

"So many mental health disorders begin before the age of 25, it's critical to target young people," says Dottie Mullikin, director of prevention for DMH. "The sooner the illness is diagnosed, the more likely it is that the individual can make a full recovery."

Mental Health First Aid originated in Australia and has been used extensively there and in Canada. "Its effectiveness is well-documented," Mullikin says. "It reduces the stigma of mental illness, increases the amount of help available and builds the confidence of people providing the help."

The extent of training for Mental Health First Aid on college campuses will depend on funding. Mullikin hopes schools will implement ongoing training programs, especially for residence hall workers, faculty and others with frequent student interaction.

The departments of Public Safety, Health and Senior Services, Mental Health and Higher Education collaborate on a subcommittee of Missouri's Homeland Security Advisory Council. The subcommittee also includes representatives from police, fire departments, students, attorneys, college administrators and others to address campus security. The group is chaired by Commissioner of Higher Education Robert B. Stein.

"Our goals are to help colleges and universities create safe campuses by providing resources, communicating best practices, drafting legislation and conducting research," Stein says.

Surveys conducted in 2007-08 revealed that all of Missouri's colleges have emergency response plans in process or in place, but that one-third of them are still challenged to find a way to effectively communicate an emergency situation to the campus at large.

Survey results, as well as other helpful resources, can be found on the DHE Website at: http://campussecurity.missouri.org/ The Website contains information on student privacy rights, curriculum, emergency planning, mental health, grants and resources, and more.

The subcommittee also seeks to pass legislation that would allow independent colleges and universities to hire armed, certified law enforcement officers to work on their campuses. Such a law exists for public institutions, but not private schools.

"The Subcommittee on Homeland Security provides resources, funding opportunities and practical information to help secure the state's college campuses," Stein says. "The tragedies at Virginia Tech make us all acutely aware that we need to take steps now to be prepared for future emergencies."