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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Going virtual to support essential workers and post-secondary students

In mid-March, as the world was grinding to a halt, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s (MHCC’s) Opening Minds team knew it was time to get busy.

“Our face-to-face training had come to a standstill literally overnight,” explained Mike Pietrus, the director of the program, which is the MHCC’s training arm. “But we also knew we had mental health and resiliency training that needed to get into the hands of essential workers.”

And that’s exactly what the team pulled together to do.

“As they were adjusting to a global pandemic, working remotely and caring for their own families, they completely overhauled the training so it could be delivered virtually and at no cost to the people on the front lines of the crisis,” said Pietrus.

Louise Bradley, the MHCC’s president and CEO, remains in awe of the response. “I would have to describe this undertaking as nothing short of heroic,” she said, noting that over 400 free courses have been delivered to more than 4,000 essential workers.

The MHCC’s learning specialists took the most relevant components of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and The Working Mind (TWM), and compressed each into two-hour, interactive sessions to teach people how to look after their mental health and how to care for others. An additional one-hour course was created specifically to help managers care for their teams.

Pietrus noted that the experience required the team to do its homework and learn about virtual best practices. “But in mounting this incredible response, we are now poised and ready to begin rolling out our most-loved training courses virtually,” he said, referring to the training suite that includes MHFA and TWM and its variations.

“Our first offering,” he explained, “is going to be The Inquiring Mind Post-Secondary,” which provides mental health and resiliency training for college and university students. “We figured they were a natural first choice. Not only do they tend to be more comfortable with virtual interaction, they’ll also soon be coping with a tremendously different academic environment and need support to navigate a range of new challenges.”

Beginning in August, post-secondary institutions will be able to offer the training, which has also been overhauled in a big way.

“We learned a lot from preparing our free crisis training courses,” said Rebecca Richardson, learning specialist with MHFA and Opening Minds. “You can’t just take the face-to-face format and deliver it online. It doesn’t translate. We had to really do our research and bone up on how to make sure we were effectively engaging with participants.” 

That engagement included expanding the course to four 45-minute modules or a single three-hour course. Small groups will have the opportunity to brainstorm solutions for challenging situations, seek participants’ opinions through online polls and quizzes, and ensure that any who feel triggered by the material are connected to mental health supports.

“We needed to find a way to manage all these moving pieces,” said Pietrus, and that turned out to be creating a new role in the virtual classroom to support the facilitator. “We engage producers to handle the technical aspects of delivering the course, so the instructor could zero in on the material.”

The result of the pilot testing, at Bishop’s University and Laurentian University, speaks for itself.

“Over 82 per cent of course participants were confident they could apply the knowledge and skills they learned when they were in everyday situations,” said Richardson. “After observing both pilots, I was encouraged and inspired by the students’ energy and passion and their willingness to discuss challenging topics — even in a virtual setting.”

Bishop’s student Chloe Kendall said she found “the course extremely insightful. It helped me understand my own mental health and gain awareness of how other people might be feeling. The knowledge I gained in two days will last me a lifetime.”

Richardson is convinced that this willingness to embrace vulnerability and seek support will be essential for fostering mental wellness as students return to school this fall.

“Many will be looking for strategies to cope with the stresses of remote learning and social isolation, as well as ways to discuss and make sense of their experiences over the last few months. Moving The Inquiring Mind course to a virtual format in time for the autumn semester will help post-secondary institutions support students through these challenges.”

Visit TWM’s Inquiring Mind Post-Secondary Virtual page to find out where courses are being offered.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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