Mental health first aid for students needing support

Mental health first aiders, Queen’s University Belfast School of Pharmacy

Queen’s University Belfast School of Pharmacy have formed a student-led mental health and well-being team to help safeguard the health of every student.

According to the Northern Ireland Health Survey 2015/2016, 19% of individuals show signs of a possible mental health problem.1 It is reported that within Russell Group institutions, more than 43,000 students had counselling in the 2014-15 academic year.2 At the Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) School of Pharmacy, high value is assigned to safeguarding the health and well-being of every student.    

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) initiative started after a discussion regarding recent news headlines about students from similar degree programmes who had taken their own lives.  At QUB, we are aware of the pressure undergraduates may be under, particularly around examination time.  We thought it might be helpful to start raising awareness about mental health in the school in an effort to dispel any stigma.

The project’s aim was to become proactive in supporting the mental health and well-being of our students, as well as creating a school environment where mental health issues can be openly discussed and addressed.

The central tenet was provision of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training (see Box) to undergraduate and postgraduate students across all academic streams in the school. First aid as we know it is the help given to an injured person before medical treatment can be obtained. MHFA differs only in that it is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or who is in a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate professional treatment is received, or until the crisis resolves. Funding for the training was provided by Queen’s Annual Fund.

The project was promoted through student and staff presentations. Due to a huge amount of interest, we had to select students randomly from each cohort.

Nineteen students and one academic in the School of Pharmacy completed the twelve hours of training. This was facilitated by the Northern Ireland depression charity AWARE, with each trained participant achieving the globally-recognised MHFA qualification.

“Mental Health First Aid Training was an enjoyable and informative experience. As a pharmacist, it gave me the confidence to develop my counselling skills and consider patients mental and physical needs in addition to providing the usual advice on their prescribed medicines.” (Student CMcD)

Trainees were made aware of interventions (see Box) that are recognised by research and learnt the signs and symptoms of mental health problems. They were introduced to the MHFA action plan, which is a framework to help the person giving first aid to remain calm and confident and to respond in an appropriate way. This training is also valuable for future and current work in professional practice. In community pharmacies, pharmacists are often the healthcare professional who has the most contact with a person with mental health issues3.

“…I feel like I’m making a difference in their lives by being able to speak to them when they’re feeling down or offer some lifestyle advice for improving their mental health.” (Student AD)

A secondary objective of this project was to raise awareness amongst all students and staff, with a view to reducing stigma associated with mental health issues and to foster openness around the subject. This agenda is student-led and includes provision of intensive and specific support to student peers when stressful events, such as examinations, or times of known high work intensity are approaching. Information on available support is displayed in prominent locations in the school and is also emailed to all students. This programme is also one which QUB students can use as part of an application for the QUB extracurricular skills award, DegreePlus.

“Mental health conditions are often not seen in the same way as other health conditions and as such aren’t treated the same. The mental health first aid training we received allows us to help someone in a crisis and will be useful not only in the university setting but also when working in community pharmacy. Speaking to others about the training allows the initiation of conversations that help to remove the stigma associated with mental health.” (Student RM)

The student-led mental health and well-being team have led a mental health awareness day for other students and have completed fundraising activities for AWARE.

They ran a coffee morning to allow communication and enjoyment. They developed a mental health session incorporating laughter yoga and mindfulness that was available to all students at QUB as part of Development Week where students pick activities and sessions to attend that are extra-curricular.

They have also created areas where students can wind down and “talk it out” with peers before and after OSCE assessments.  Here seating, tea, coffee and biscuits are available to any student who requires some time out. Assessments are a particular source of stress for our undergraduates and so the team are keen to offer support.

In the 2018-19 academic year the team plan to continue their mental health awareness programme and hope to secure future funding to train further students in MHFA and mental health awareness.

Box: Mental health first aid training

The course covers suicide prevention, signs of depression and dealing with anxiety attacks. Intervention is based on the ALGEE mnemonic –

Assess for risk of suicide or harm

Listen nonjudgmentally

Give reassurance and information

Encourage appropriate professional help

Encourage self-help and other support strategies


The course covered signs of depression as per AWARE resources.


About the Authors:

Johanne Barry is a lecturer and careers liaison academic at the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s University Belfast.

Fiona Hughes is a lecturer and community pharmacy FP lead at the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s University Belfast.



1. Scarlett M & Denvir J. Health Survey Northern Ireland: First Results 2015/16. Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: Belfast. 2016

2. Gani A. Tuition fees ‘have led to surge in students seeking counselling’. The guardian [internet]. 2016 Mar 13. Available from:

3. Sutcliffe D. The role of pharmacy in mental health. Royal Pharmaceutical Society Blog. 2017 Jan 25. Available from:

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, Mental health first aid for students needing support;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20205244

You may also be interested in