Becoming a Mental Health First Aider and Being the Difference for my Peers

How you too can make a difference

Written by Celeste Chism, Northern Arizona University Class of 2019

When was the last time someone asked you how you are doing? I’m not talking about how school, or work, or your day is going. I’m talking about someone giving you 100% of their focused attention; genuinely curious to know how you are. Nowadays, so many distractions prevent us from connecting with one another on a deeper, more vulnerable level. One time, someone asked me this very question, but it was in a very intentional and caring way. Immediately, I got that lump in my throat that appears when I am about to cry. Every single emotion and thought surfaced to my brain while my heart thumped in my chest. I began to realize how much stuff was bottled up inside of me, and all it took was a simple, earnest question. We need more of this.


Let me introduce myself. I am a senior at Northern Arizona University (NAU). For two and a half years, I served as a peer mentor and coach for more than 75 first-year students and students on academic probation. They were of different ages, with different backgrounds, and at different places in their lives. My main job was to help them understand how to be academically successful in college by utilizing the resources available to them. Many times, however, my conversations with these students addressed the large, unwanted elephant in the room: their mental health.

I have coached students who were sleep-deprived, depressed, anxious, suffered schizophrenia, showed signs of being suicidal, had been emotionally/sexually abused and worst of all, students who didn’t have a support system. Often, these setbacks prevented them from passing their classes, which in turn caused them to lose their financial aid. This led them to take time off from school or drop out altogether. My own mental health suffered from trying to manage my commitments while feeling like I couldn’t give my students the help they desperately needed. In the worst of cases and outside of my experience, NAU has had students successfully complete suicide. Even more alarming, the suicide rate in northern Arizona averages higher than both state and national averages.*

Whether you like it or not, mental health affects each one of us, and it especially affects my peer community, youth and young adults. For some individuals, taking care of their mental health comes very naturally and may even happen subconsciously, but for others, the extent of mental health setbacks can be deadly. Though there could be many resources and opportunities available to help with the challenges that young people face - college, finances, relationships, employment, social media, and substance abuse - not every person has access to these resources nor do they feel comfortable reaching out for help. Nothing beats an open and honest discussion about mental health, which is why we can’t be reactive, sitting and waiting for those in need to reach out; instead, we need to be proactive, unafraid to ask others how they are doing.

Recently, I completed an 8-hour Mental Health First Aid® training that addresses mental health concerns. What is so unique about the course is that it sheds light on the fact that professionals are not the only people who can help; anyone can support someone in crisis or experiencing challenges. The course focuses on bettering an individual’s “noticing skills” and providing one with the necessary tools and action plan so they know when to intervene and how to intervene. I wish I had been provided with these important tools upon entering college because I would have known how to provide additional help to those peers in need. As a young adult, this training was invaluable because I am still interacting with the world’s future workforce and leaders on a daily basis. It is not only NAU students who are affected, but many youth and young adults across northern Arizona. Mental health is a team effort; as humans, it is our duty to care about one another, and becoming a Mental Health First Aider is a great first step. It is so empowering to know that I can be the difference in the life of someone else, just as others have been for me. The Mental Health First Aid course is free, so take advantage of this opportunity so that you, too, can make a difference.

To become a Mental Health First Aider and learn more about courses available, please visit To register for the upcoming Mental Health First Aid class on February 14, 2019 offered in Flagstaff, Arizona, please sign up at this link.

* Source: “Advancing Wellbeing in Northern Arizona: A Regional Health Equity Assessment,” 2017

Sandra KowalskiComment