Author, Darren Chalmers-Stevens, Group Chief Operating Officer at CriticalArc
The fact that mental health is a huge issue globally for universities was highlighted again last week with Universities UK issuing new guidelines focused particularly on suicide prevention, with similar reports and guidance being issued in the USA and Australia. This guidance is worth reading. Where there are serious concerns about the mental wellbeing of particular students, Universities UK calls for institutions to be proactive in sharing information with parents and other trusted contacts. This raises important practical considerations not covered by the guidance, but very relevant to it. For example, how easy is it for students to access help if they are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, and not just at the point of crisis, but earlier too?
Mental wellbeing is an issue more widely, too
We see it affecting university staff, and we see it in the healthcare sector and other public-facing organizations where there is growing pressure on frontline services. The overstretched staff who have to cope with increased pressures are feeling the strain, and of course, many people are worried about problems at home as well as at work, from the cost of heating to the cost of eating. This is an issue for security and public safety departments. It’s increasingly understood that properly equipped first responders and security officers trained in mental health ‘first aid’ are in a position to make an important contribution. Perhaps the most valuable role they can have is as a 24/7 first point of contact when no other source of help is available to people: out-of-hours; during an emergency situation; or when the individual needing help is in a remote location or otherwise isolated. The need for easier 24/7 contact points is clear. Even now at many organizations, such as universities, it’s difficult for individuals to access help. There are still too many barriers: complex websites, unclear signposting, limitation of services to 9-to-5 hours, no help during public holidays when people are often most isolated, and no easy way to reach out.
The situation in some cases is a disgrace. I have surveyed institutions where there are almost 30 options presented as potential sources of help for someone struggling to cope – that’s bewildering, and cannot possibly work. You only have to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone who’s feeling desperate or overwhelmed, and you understand that for such a person reaching for help needs to be simple. Not only do barriers need to be removed, with a single-pane-of-glass approach, but an appropriate response has to be guaranteed every time somebody calls for help. There can be no times when the institution shuts its doors to students or staff in trouble – not on weekends, not in the middle of the night, not even on Christmas day because those are very the times when people can struggle most with dark thoughts and depression.
Public safety and security departments are ideally placed to provide a safety net
The tools and expertise has been developed, and the model has been proven. A growing number of institutions are going down this route, equipping their officers to deliver mental health first aid with great efficiency. Over the last few years, we’ve worked with teams globally, and they’ve helped us to augment mental health services in the SafeZone application. We are not claiming to offer a silver bullet, because mental health is such a huge and complex challenge, but what we can do is solve the very practical problem of how to reach for help when you are feeling down and how an organization responds appropriately. And we can make it easy for institutions to tailor their system to their own resources and processes. For example, a student pressing the ‘wellbeing assistance’ button at 8 AM might not be put in direct contact with the counseling service, because that office isn’t open yet. Instead, they could be offered other options, from instant connection to a moderated forum, or a booking facility where they can reserve a call-back at a chosen time; or real-time, direct communications with a trained first responder/security officer in the most urgent cases. We allow choices to be given to the student at the touch of a single button, and the process of support to be put into action immediately. This is unique in the market, being able to offer services based on who you are, where you are, the time of day, and what services are available at a given location, seamless to the user.
The system can be fine-tuned further
So faster escalation is provided for individuals with a history of mental health difficulties – those, for example, who have previously expressed suicidal thoughts. Those individuals can be fast-tracked to emergency psychological services so that they get the right support in a timely way. That kind of response might just make the difference. It is also worth noting that SafeZone can be customized for employees, providing a completely different set of services for staff, fully integrated into EAPs (Employee Assistance Programmes). This means that organizations can offer a holistic approach, yet one tailored to the different communities they serve.
The tools are available now and can be readily adapted, so that institutions can provide the kind of tailored support or emergency safety net they want, without the risk of becoming overwhelmed. It’s encouraging that mental health issues are increasingly understood and being talked about. And that we now have the tools to make it easier for people to reach for help, 24/7, wherever they are.