Creating a Safe Learning Space
Participants need to feel comfortable, safe, and respected during the training. We discuss several strategies for helping to create a positive learning space. As you prepare to facilitate, you will want to consider factors such as when and where to hold the session, key messages on promotional materials, whether to use group guidelines, how to ensure diverse representation, and ways of working with co-facilitators or guests. If possible, having a co-facilitator or someone to assist you during the presentation can be very helpful. If a participant is triggered and needs to leave the session, a co-facilitator or helper can follow up with the participant.
Opening with Intention
Facilitators have an enormous role to play in setting the tone for a session. As people enter the space (online or in person), you can welcome them and help them get oriented. You can let them know if you’ve started or whether you’re waiting for a few more people, and share housekeeping information such as where the bathrooms are, where they can put their things, or how to use online interactive features. You may want to consider using a breathing exercise together or an icebreaker activity to help put people at ease. As you begin the session, you can use opening questions that help create inclusivity, such as correct pronouns, check-in questions, or information about accessibility needs and requests.
Scope of the Session
It is important to hold space in a session for people’s feelings and experiences – shared or not. However, boundaries are also needed to allow the session to move forward and be completed within the stated time frame.
It is also important to establish at the beginning that the training is a learning space and not a counselling session (you may also want to send an email with this message to all participants prior to the session). If a participant is starting to take over the discussion with their personal experiences, you can gently redirect the conversation back to the material that you need to cover. Plan to stay after the session is over to talk to any participants one-on-one.
It’s also important to reassure participants who worry that they must “fix” a student who is in distress. Emphasize that faculty and staff are not expected to be counsellors or to provide mental health treatment.
What This Session Does Not Include
This training doesn’t focus on how to recognize and support a student struggling with substance use and addiction. Substance use and mental health are closely linked, but this topic is beyond the scope of this foundational training.
This session briefly addresses suicide, but suicide is a very serious issue that requires more in-depth training. BCcampus has a training resource on suicide awareness for faculty and staff. BCcampus also has a facilitated resource on suicide Let’s Talk About Suicide: Raising Awareness and Supporting Students.
Faculty and staff who have concerns about a student who is suicidal should consult a counsellor. If it’s an emergency, they should call 911 and campus security. Section 3 of this resource, “The Three Rs Framework: Recognize, Respond, Refer,” provides information on how to refer another student to campus and community resources.
It can be helpful to ask participants to agree to a list of guidelines or a code of conduct when they register for the session. You can either send the group guidelines to participants before the session or take some time at the beginning of the session to establish the guidelines together.
When you start the session, you can ask participants if they feel comfortable with the guidelines or if they have something they would like to add or change.
Group guidelines can be an important tool for supporting safer discussion about difficult topics. You can remind participants of the guidelines if the discussion is getting difficult. Important group agreements relate to listening to and showing respect for others (e.g., not talking when others are speaking, not making rude comments, not talking on the phone), confidentiality, and participation.
Group guidelines come in all shapes and sizes. Some groups have a few guidelines, while others have many. Here are some suggestions for possible guidelines:
- Share the learning, not the names or the stories (confidentiality).
- Participants have the right to “pass” on activities/questions that feel uncomfortable.
- It is all right to feel uncomfortable or to not know answers to everything.
- It is okay to step out of the session at any time.
- Treat others with respect.
- Be mindful of your language; respect everyone’s names and pronouns.
- Speak for yourself. Use “I statements” to state opinions or feelings.
- Seek to replace judgment with curiosity.
- Take care of yourself.
- Allow everyone a chance to participate.
Content warnings (also called trigger warnings) are statements made before sharing potentially difficult or challenging material. The intent of content warnings is to provide participants with the opportunity to prepare themselves emotionally for engaging with the topic or to make a choice to not participate.
Different departments and institutions will have different approaches to content warnings, and this may guide your decision about including content warnings on registration or sign-up forms, in learning materials, and in the learning environment. Here is an example of a content warning:
We will be discussing topics related to mental health and mental illness in this training. During the training, you can choose not to participate in certain activities or discussions and can leave the room or virtual space at any time. If you feel upset or overwhelmed, please know that there are resources to support you.
There are a number of other facilitation strategies you may want to consider in addition to or instead of a content warning:
- When discussing difficult content, check in with participants from time to time. Ask them how they are doing, whether they need a break, and so on. Let them know that you are aware that the content is difficult.
- Ask participants to be mindful of their fellow learners during the discussions and remind them that people who have struggled with mental illness may be present in the room (regardless of whether this information has been shared with others).
Some participants may have direct experience with mental illness or trauma. There are a number of strategies you can use to help create a trauma-aware learning space.
Before the Session
Before you start facilitating, ensure that you are knowledgeable about receiving disclosures and about available supports and resources on campus and in the community. Some institutions have developed practices such as expedited counselling for participants who might need support after a training session, or making intensive crisis supports available for a short time after a training session or other initiative.
At the beginning of the session, let participants know that they have the right and freedom to take care of themselves in a way that works for them. In particular, let participants know that they can leave the room or virtual space or choose not to participate in an activity. You could say something like “If at any time you feel you need to leave, that’s fine with me. You are empowered to take care of yourself.” You can also let participants know that reactions to difficult material can sometimes be delayed and that they may wish to connect with you a few days after the training or to access support from family, friends, or other people in their lives.
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can share information about grounding activities that may be helpful to participants during the session. Grounding activities, such as breathing exercises, are simple activities that can help people relax, stay present, and reconnect with the “here and now” following a trauma response – for example, pressing or “rooting” your feet into the ground, breathing slowly in and out for a count of two, repeating a statement such as “I am safe now, I can relax,” or using your five senses to describe the environment in detail.
During the Session
If you notice that a participant has left the group and you suspect that they were reminded of previous trauma by something in the session, follow up with them one-on-one after the session to check in and offer any resources that you think might be helpful to them.
During the session, if the conversation becomes intense or you believe that a number of participants have become overwhelmed or affected by the discussion, it can be helpful to take a break or use an activity that involves the body or movement to help people reconnect with the present moment.
Let participants know that you will be available after the training if they would like to debrief or share their responses to the session or how they are feeling. Schedule at least 30 minutes after a session so that you can be available to participants. If you are delivering the training online, let participants know that they can private message or email you.
Participants may need some time near the end of the session to ask questions, share a reflection, or simply sit with what they have heard and discussed. If possible, try to ensure that this time is built in at the end so no one feels rushed when concluding the session.
After the Session
Plan to stay after the session to talk to participants who have questions or concerns. If you are concerned about a participant, ask them if they would find it helpful for you to check in with them later in the day or the following day. You could also ask them if they have a friend or family member that they might find it helpful to speak with after the session. If so, help them make a plan to connect with them by phone, text, or in person or at a certain time.
For more information on trauma-informed practice, see the BCcampus recorded webinar Trauma-Informed Facilitation, by Dawn Schell, and the Education Northwest resource Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide, by Shannon Davidson.
Questions That May Come Up and How to Respond
Facilitating conversations about mental health can be challenging. Participants likely bring many different experiences, assumptions, ideas, and worries about how best to support students who are struggling with these issues.
It’s important to create a space where people feel safe and supported so they share and listen to others with respect and empathy. This section offers ideas and tips for creating such an environment, but you also have a time limit within which to present material. It’s important to keep an eye on the clock and know how, and when, to direct participants’ attention to the next topic.
As mental health and wellness affects all parts of our lives, participants may bring up related issues or concerns. Below are some questions that might come up during the presentation, with suggestions for responses. The goal is to acknowledge people’s comments, thank them for their contribution, and point them to resources they may find helpful. Then the discussion can move back to the specific topic at hand.
- Thank the person for bringing up this important topic.
- Acknowledge that there isn’t time to address this question in a meaningful way.
- Direct participants to the supports available at your institution around this topic.
- Invite the person to talk with you after the session for further assistance.
Why isn’t this institution doing more to support students struggling with mental health and wellness?
- Acknowledge in a respectful way the person’s commitment to students’ well-being.
- Let them know that you’ll be sharing resources that are available currently.
- Invite them to meet with you after the session to share ideas for how the institution could do better.
Why do I have to be responsible for students’ mental health and well-being? We have counselling services for that.
- Remind people that no one is being asked to take responsibility for students’ well-being.
- Note that faculty and staff have a role to play, but only if they feel comfortable doing so while maintaining their own boundaries.
- Suggest that participants who still have concerns after the presentation come and talk with you for further guidance.
I tried to help a student and it went badly.
- Acknowledge that the person has had a negative experience in the past.
Focus their attention on the present: by attending this session they can perhaps discover other ways of supporting students while maintaining good boundaries.
- Invite the person to talk with you after the presentation if they still have concerns.
What about the support for the mental health and well-being of faculty and staff?
- Acknowledge the importance of the issue being raised: faculty and staff face their own challenges around mental health and well-being.
- Let people know that there are institutional and community resources available to them and you can provide those after the session.
- Invite participants to support each other using the skills that are covered in the session. Remind people that we can benefit from being seen and being offered empathy and care.
Transitions and Difficult Conversations
While facilitating, you may encounter challenging moments when you may not be sure how to respond. Someone may start to dominate the discussion, or the conversation may shift in a direction that makes you concerned for the comfort of other participants.
Here are some potential responses for bringing participants back to the topic or handling challenging moments:
- “This is a really great dialogue, but I would like to bring us back to the topic at hand.”
- “Thank you for sharing that story. I’d like to follow up with you after the session today if we can save this conversation for later.”
- “I’m getting conscious of time here. Let’s move on for now.”
- “Your feelings are important and I want to be able to give you my full attention. Would you like to step out and have a conversation about it? My colleague can continue with the session.” (This can work if there are two co-facilitators. If there is only one facilitator, you can suggest continuing the conversation after the session.)
- “It’s okay for us to agree to disagree. Let’s move on; I’d like to bring us back to some of the activities and questions we had planned.”
Self-Care and Community Care
Self-care and community care are about looking after yourself and those around you. The experience of facilitating a session on mental health can range from satisfying and rewarding to challenging and overwhelming. It is important to make sure that you are able to take the time to take care of yourself and that you are willing to reach out to co-workers, friends, and family, or for professional support if needed.
After facilitating a session, you may want to check in with a friend or colleague about your experiences and any successes or challenges in facilitating. This allows for time to reflect on issues related to your own mental health, to consider any feedback that you received from participants, and to discuss any facilitation successes and challenges. You might use the time after a session to reflect or use a journal to make notes as a way of processing the experience.
Check-In/Reflection Questions for Facilitators
Taking time after a session to debrief can be a helpful way to care for yourself. Here are some sample debriefing questions.
- What was a positive moment or a success in this session?
- How did participants engage with the different activities? Is there something I want to facilitate or do differently next time?
- Did I or a participant seem to have a response to the material, a shared story, or another participant that was challenging? If so, how was it responded to or resolved?
- Is there something that would be helpful for me to learn about or check with a colleague about?
Resources on Mental Health for Further Reading and Preparation
- Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH): Has many resources on mental health and addiction, including a Get Help page with information on crisis lines and immediate help.
- HeadsUpGuys: An online resource from the University of British Columbia that supports men in their fight against depression by providing tips, tools, information about professional services, and stories of success. Supports men’s mental health in a positive, inclusive, and mutually supportive way and is for people of all backgrounds, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
- Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, B.C. Children’s Hospital: Provides mental health and substance use information, resources, and peer support for youth and young adults. Also provides information and resources for people of all ages with an eating disorder or disordered eating concern.
- Mental Health Commission of Canada: Offers a number of fact sheets, research reports, and webinars on mental health and mental illness.
- South Asian Mental Health (SOCH): A mental health promotion initiative tailored to provide the South Asian community with mental health support and start the conversation to break the stigma around mental health. The Pardesi Project, a film about the mental health of South Asian international students, is available on their website.
- We Matter Campaign: An Indigenous, youth-led, nationally registered organization dedicated to Indigenous youth support, hope, and life promotion.
- “Creating a Safe Learning Space,” “Trauma Awareness,” and “Self-Care and Community Care” are adapted from Consent & Sexualized Violence Training and Facilitator Guide: Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence in B.C. Post-Secondary Institutions by Sexual Violence Training Development Team (CC BY 4.0 License).