Tag: students

Mental Health First Aid

Many of us in academia have taken first aid or CPR training. The first time that I had to learn some of these techniques was during swimming lessons as a child. I later took an intensive first aid course during my undergraduate degree. I’ve thankfully only had to use this training twice; both times involved successfully using the Heimlich maneuver to prevent someone from choking. I would therefore like to think that I would help someone out if I knew that they were in some kind of medical distress (e.g. having a heart attack, hit by a car, broken limb, etc.) You’ll notice that the examples that I’ve given here are physical ailments that have obvious symptoms. I’ve recently had to ask myself the hard question of whether I know what to do and would be willing to provide assistance to someone having a mental health crisis. Prior to last week, I would have been ill equipped to do so and probably would have hoped that some other bystander would step up to the plate and render aid. The easier choice in the moment is to turn a blind eye to mental illness perhaps out of fear, stigma, or ignorance, but I will argue that we have as much responsibility to render aid to someone experiencing a psychotic episode as we do someone who has suffered a concussion.

Last week I participated in a two day workshop on Mental Health First Aid offered by trained volunteers at my university. The program was put together by the Mental Health Commission of Canada . I would strongly encourage faculty colleagues to take part in this workshop or a similar one if offered on your campus. Many mental illnesses have an age of onset that overlaps with the ages of many of our traditional students. You may be in a position to recognize mental health problems experienced by your students and be able to provide assistance. The goal of this program is not to make you responsible for diagnosing mental illness, but to educate you so that you can provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The course also goes a long way towards combating the stigma that still accompanies mental illness. Mental health problems are common, but many suffer in silence due to a lack of knowledge about supports available and fear that they will be ridiculed or discriminated against due to their health condition. Mental health problems include substance-related disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; chances are that many of your colleagues, friends, and family have or will have a mental health problem. According to the Canadian statistics, one person in five will experience some problem with their mental health in the course of a year, while one person in three will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. The economic costs from lost productivity and medical leaves are huge, but it is the personal costs to the person with the illness that is the real tragedy here. Contrary to what we see on TV and in the movies, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one. People with mental illness are often ostracized, belittled, disbelieved, judged, or told that “it’s all in your head” or to “snap out of it”! These are real medical conditions; imagine telling someone with cancer that their disease would go away if only they “stopped being so lazy”. We have a long way to go in educating ourselves and fighting against ignorance.

I feel fortunate to work for an institution that recognizes the value of training its members to offer assistance to those experiencing mental illness. I hope that I will never have cause to use my training from last week, but that is an unrealistic wish and I recognize it as such. I look forward to the day when the stigma around mental illness is eradicated and the needed social supports are accessible and readily available. Until that day comes I will stand ready to offer assistance to those who need and want it and to dispel the myths that abound about mental illness. It is my wish that you will do the same.

Responding to Requests for Academic Reference Letters

I have just made it through the deluge of reference letter requests that occurs annually from January to April. I am relatively new to the act of writing reference letters for students and have some words of wisdom to share based on my personal experiences.


1. Create a policy for academic reference letter requests and stick to it. Useful things to think about are who you will write letters for. For example, I only write letters for students who have: i) taken 2 or more classes with me and performed well in the courses, or ii) taken one or more classes with me, but have built a professional rapport with me by visiting office hours regularly, or iii) performed research in my laboratory. In order to write a solid reference letter I need to know the student and be able to talk about their particular strengths and weaknesses. I also let students know that reference letters need to be requested 1-2 weeks in advance of the deadline so that I have time to put together a strong letter.


2. Be honest with the student if you cannot write a strong reference letter for them. This can happen for a variety of reasons. You may not know the student well enough, you do not have the time to write the letter, or you may think that the program and the student are not a good fit. In these cases let the student know that you cannot provide them with a reference letter. If you feel that it is appropriate you can suggest other people who might be more supportive letter writers. You do not do the student any favours by writing a luke-warm reference letter.


3. Require students to provide relevant support materials to you in order to help you to craft your letter. I ask most students to provide me with a resume/CV, an unofficial record of academic transcripts, and information about the program that they are applying to. These materials allow me to make a strong case for the student in my letter. I also make it the job of the student to ensure that I receive any electronic links etc. that might be required for completing on-line reference letter submissions. If you see something in the student’s materials that should be corrected do them the courtesy of pointing it out and offering advice for improvement.


4. Write the strongest and most honest letter of reference that you can. Submit the letter on time. Confirm with the student that you have submitted your letter. I have been on the receiving end of poor and late reference letters from other academics and it is an embarrassment to the profession. If you agree to write a reference letter then you owe it to the student to do the best job that you can. I also ask students to keep me updated and let me know if or when they receive acceptance or interviews for programs or positions so that I can share in their success!