Missouri focuses on mental health after Virginia Tech tragedies

MU will incorporate mental health first aid into staff training.

In April 2007, a student at Virginia Tech University shot and killed 32 people on campus and wounded many others before killing himself. Nineteen months after that shooting, another Virginia Tech student was arrested on charges of stabbing a graduate student to death.

In the wake of these campus tragedies, two years apart and half a country away, Missouri will become one of the first states to incorporate mental health first aid training in regular campus personnel training.

After the 2007 shooting, the Missouri Department of Higher Education teamed with the Missouri Department of Mental Health to create the Higher Education Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

The subcommittee has two purposes: to outline mental health first aid training for public universities and to provide law enforcement personnel on private campuses.

MDHE spokeswoman Kathy Love said the stabbing at Virginia Tech further accelerated the subcommittee's work.

"It showed the urgency for addressing mental health issues," she said. "Both events were from students experiencing extreme mental stress."

At least half of mental illnesses manifest themselves by the age of 25, DMH Director of Prevention Dottie Mullikin said.

"We need to recognize the signs," she said. "It's not a phase, not a passing fancy."

University personnel need to be aware of important symptoms of mental illness, Mullikin said. The sooner they recognize symptoms, the more likely someone at risk is to make a full and healthy recovery. Love said the trained university personnel would be staff who interact the most with students, but they could be "anyone at all levels."

That is important, she said, because not all students will go to the Student Health Center for help.

"This is a more proactive approach," Love said.

Residence Halls Association Vice President Nate Ballance said he sees no drawbacks if the training could easily be a part of student staff training.

"This is another measure to ensure the safety of our students," Ballance said. "If they're safe they're more likely to have a positive experience."

Mullikin said mental health would eventually reach the point where people regard it with the same value as physical health.

"Forty years ago, we saw cancer as a death sentence, and that's no longer true today," she said. "Mental illness used to be something you just treated in an institution, and that's no longer true today."

While working with DMH, Mullikin has personally spoken with Australian nurse and special education teacher Betty Kitchener. Even though mental health first aid might be a new idea in the U.S., it originated in Australia in 2001 with Kitchener, whose research has provided a foundation for mental health first aid in Missouri.

"We're really starting ahead of the game," Mullikin said.

Love said mental health first aid training will happen, but the question is to what degree.

"The people who can take it will be contingent on funding," she said. " It's a matter of capacity." Mullikin said she understands the problems that come with a slowed economy, but she remains optimistic.

"I don't know that it's going to be easy," Mullikin said. "But what is more important than the mental health of the young people who are going to propel us into the next generation of leadership?"

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