Jenn Oleary
Faculty member in the Genetics Technology program and Clinical Liaison Officer at The Michener Institute of Education at UHN, Jennifer O’Leary, aims to use the skills she acquired during a mental health first aid workshop when interacting with students and colleagues. (Photo: UHN) 

As a faculty member in the Genetics Technology program and Clinical Liaison Officer at The Michener Institute of Education at UHN, Jennifer O'Leary spends a lot of time interacting with students.

While most of these conversations focus on school projects or questions about clinical placements, at times, she finds herself having discussions with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

"I deal with students while they're here in classes but also when they're away at their clinical site," Jennifer says. "We have a national program so they go anywhere from Alberta to Newfoundland, and sometimes students go to clinical sites where they don't have any family or support."

It was at the annual Clinical Professional Development Day at Michener that she first learned about the Mental Health Commission of Canada's mental health first aid workshop. The presenter shared how he had been saved from a suicidal episode by a stranger who said it looked like he was having a bad day.

That small interaction was enough confirmation that somebody cared.

Having a family member who has experienced a psychotic episode and suicidal thoughts in the past, the story struck a chord for Jennifer and she registered for the two-day workshop.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, half of the Canadian population will have had a mental illness by age 40.

To help address this concern, Michener's Continuing Education Department is partnering with the Mental Health Commission of Canada to offer a mental health first aid workshop to UHN and Michener employees. Read more and register for the next course, which is being held Nov. 24 - 25.

Jennifer took the course last year and learned about the four most common mental health issues: substance abuse; mood disorders, anxiety and trauma, and psychotic disorders. She learned how to interact confidently around mental health with family, friends, communities and workplaces.

"Within about two weeks of me coming back to school after taking the course, a student was struggling with some very serious family concerns," says Jennifer.

The situation allowed her to utilize the new skills she had acquired, such as ALGEE – a five-step framework outlining steps for assessing a mental health crisis – which stands for Assess for risk of suicide or harm; Listen nonjudgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help; Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

While Michener is fortunate to have a Coaching and Counseling Office that provides support for students struggling personally and academically, Jennifer feels that faculty can act as a confidant for students who may be unwilling to seek help on their own.

"It was something to be able to have an initial conversation before directing them to coaching and counseling," she says. "It's really fantastic that we have that (Coaching and Counselling Office) for long-term support, but the reality is that as a faculty member, you sometimes get that information first."

There was another incident in which a non-student entered the school from the street. Jennifer was able to recognize that the person was exhibiting signs of schizophrenia. She put into place some of the tools she had learned by listening non-judgementally, accepting that what the person was saying was their reality, and finding out how to support them and how to direct them to what they needed.

"It wasn't really what I thought I would be using it for in that situation, but I was able to recognize what was going on because I'd had this training," she says.

Through instruction and discussion, participants of the mental health first aid workshop report feeling decreased stigma toward those experiencing a mental health crisis or illness, as well as increased competence while supporting individuals in crisis. They also develop increased awareness of signs and symptoms of the most common mental health problems we face as a society and greater confidence interacting with individuals experiencing a mental health problem.

"You never know when you may be faced with someone in a crisis, whether it's a colleague or somebody in your personal life, even somebody walking in off the street," says Jennifer.

"The value of taking the course is to give you that additional information, give you some resources and help you feel a little more confident when you're having a difficult conversation with someone."

Continuing Education at The Michener Institute will be offering the basic level, two-day workshop at the St. Patrick Campus Nov. 24 – 25.​​

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