By Addy Hatch, College of Nursing

Alarmed by surveys saying college and professional students experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts at growing rates, an associate dean at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences created an elective class on mental health first aid.

It had a long waiting list to get in the first time it was offered three years ago, and every time since then.
That tells Jennifer Robinson’s students are interested in mental health—their own, or that of their friends, families and future patients.

“Historically our focus on mental health has been the medications and treatments available,” said Robinson, who is associate dean for professional education at the pharmacy college. “I wanted to give students some more soft skills and good tools so they can respond appropriately when somebody within their sphere is struggling.”

About 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness in a year, and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness. Recent studies say both undergraduate and graduate students have more anxiety and depression than the general public.

Robinson previously led the college’s student services, where she experienced the issue firsthand.

“I’d see students in the hallway and it would appear they had everything together, then they’d come to my office and it was clear that their world was crumbling around them,” she said. “There were using all this energy to be able to hold on to the façade that everything was OK.”

The College of Pharmacy class covers a wide range of mental health concerns, from recognizing signs of depression to action plans for responding to panic attacks or suicidal thoughts. It also aims to decrease the stigma around a mental health diagnosis, which can be a real issue for high‑achieving students who want to become healthcare providers.

Robinson measured students’ opinions about mental health before and after they took the class and wrote a research article on her findings. She found that the class improved students’ perceptions of people affected by mental health disorders, and improved their confidence in managing such disorders, including initiating conversations about suicide. Robinson has presented her research findings at conferences and the study is in the process of being published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.

Now the same mental health first aid training program Robinson uses has spread beyond the College of Pharmacy, thanks to a grant from the Washington Student Achievement Council.

WSU Health Sciences’ Student Success Center has trained WSU employees on offering that program and a separate suicide prevention program, said Jessica Mason, assistant director of counseling services and violence prevention programs for the campus. They’ll be offered to interested faculty and staff in the fall semester.

“We’re seeing more mental health issues in student populations and more serious pathology,” she said. “I think there’s a need to raise awareness on campus on how to help people who are struggling.”

Robinson shared Mason’s thoughts on mental health awareness.

“The more we can increase mental health education and reduce the stigma, the better off our community is going to be,” she said.