Pharmacy students to be trained in Mental Health First Aid

Pharmacotherapy Assistant Professor Christina Buchman trains Yakima pharmacy students on suicide awareness in the fall of 2019.

In any given year, approximately one in five American adults is living with a mental illness. A recent survey published by the CDC found 40% of adults surveyed in the U.S. experienced adverse mental or behavioral health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting a critical need for people trained to intervene in a mental health crisis.

With approximately 90% of Americans living within five miles of a pharmacy, pharmacists are one of the most accessible health care providers and uniquely positioned to aid patients living with mental health conditions. The Washington State University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences is making sure its students are prepared to do so.

The college was one of seven programs across the nation recently chosen by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) Foundation for their annual scholarship program which funds innovative and diverse educational programs which aim to advance patient care and public health. The $20,000 award will be used to incorporate Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training into existing required courses at the college to prepare student pharmacists to identify and support individuals who are experiencing mental health challenges.

“Our students will be health care providers who may be the first point of contact for patients who are struggling. Having knowledge and tools to intervene will help them care for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Director for the Center for Pharmacy Practice Research and Pharmacotherapy Associate Professor Kimberly McKeirnan.

McKeirnan is part of the project team responsible for this training alongside fellow faculty members Associate Dean for Professional Education and Pharmacotherapy Professor Jennifer Robinson, Pharmacotherapy Assistant Professor Katie MacCamy and Pharmacotherapy Professor Megan Willson.

The new material will expand upon on an existing MHFA elective at the college created by Robinson with the help of then-pharmacy-student Miguel Toscano (’18). Since its start, the elective course has been popular among students and has consistently had a long waiting list to enroll. With this grant funding, the college will be able to provide the MHFA training to all pharmacy students. The training will teach students how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses in future patients while providing students with the tools needed to support themselves and their peers.

“This is a great program because it will teach our students about how to help others going through a mental health crisis but also helps participants reflect on their own mental health and provides tools for addressing problems,” explained McKeirnan.

A 2018 large-scale survey of college age students found one in four respondents had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and over a 12-month period 24.3% of respondents experienced suicidal ideation. A survey within the college a few years ago found 40% of student pharmacists planned to reach out and help someone they knew due to concerns about suicide after learning about suicide prevention in class.

“When we realized what a huge issue this is, not just nationally but here at WSU, we started applying for grants to bring this training to our students,” said McKeirnan.

The training covers a wide range of mental health concerns from recognizing risk factors and warning signs to an action plan which prepares students to intervene in situations such as when someone around them is experiencing panic attacks or suicidal thoughts.

“I am excited to get to work and invest this money in building a stronger and more resilient community,” said Robinson.