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 student is triggered and needs to leave the session, a co-facilitator or helper can follow up with the student.
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 enable the training to move forward and be completed within the stated time frame.
It is 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 to all participants with this message 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. It is a good idea to stay after the session is over to talk to any participants one-on-one.
It’s also important to provide a clear scope to reassure participants who worry that they must “save” a student who is in distress. Emphasize that students are not expected to be counsellors or “fix” a student who’s experiencing mental health problems.
What This Session Does Not Include
This session does not include content on suicide, which is a very serious issue that requires more in-depth training. This training also doesn’t focus on how to recognize and support a student struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Substance abuse and mental health are closely linked, but this topic is beyond the scope of this foundational training.
Participants who have concerns about a student who is suicidal or abusing substances should consult a counsellor – or call 911 if it’s an emergency. The “Helping Other Students” section of the guide 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 or sign up for the training. You can either send the group guidelines to participants before the session or you can take some time at the beginning of the session to establish the guidelines together.
Or, you might share a list of guidelines at the beginning of the session and ask participants if they feel comfortable with them 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 not to 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.
- Take space, make space (allow everyone a chance to participate).
Content or Trigger Warnings
Content warnings (also called trigger warnings) are statements made prior to sharing potentially difficult or challenging material. The intent of content warnings is to provide learners 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 in this training. During the training, you can choose not to participate in certain activities or discussion and can leave the session 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 discussion 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 someone close to them who has a mental illness or has taken their own life. There are a number of strategies you can use to help create a trauma-aware learning space.
Before the Session
Before you start facilitating in this area, 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 or particular initiative.
At the beginning of the sessions, 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 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.”
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 to 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 do notice that someone 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. If possible, schedule at least 30 minutes after a session so that you can be available to participants. If you are delivering the training in an online context, you can 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 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 any participants who have questions or concerns they want to discuss. 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 (e.g., via phone or text or in person or at a certain time).
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 or they may disclose confidential information about another student. Below are some questions that might come up during the session, 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.
- Does this training make me responsible for solving students’ problems?
- Thank the participant for asking this question, as it’s a worry many people have.
- Remind participants that no one is being asked to take responsibility for another student’s well-being or solve their problems. But sometimes just listening to another student and then reminding the student of resources on campus can be very helpful.
- Note that everyone does have a role to play to help others, 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 to you for further guidance.
- What about support for my own mental health and well-being?
- Acknowledge the importance of the issue being raised: all students may face their own challenges around mental health and well-being.
- Let everyone know that there are institutional and community resources available to them and you can provide those after the session. This session covers ways to manage our own stress as well as ways to support other students.
- I feel worried at the thought of helping another student who is in distress. Will this training actually help me?
- Thank the participant for asking this question, as it’s a worry many people have.
- Let them know that the training will help them feel more equipped to help and more confident if they have to talk to a student they are worried about.
- Explain that they will learn ways to begin and end a sensitive conversation and they will have a chance to practise.
- Remind them that the most important thing they can do is listen empathetically to a student who is distressed and know where to refer them. They are never expected to be a counsellor.
- I tried to help another student and it didn’t go well. What can I do next time?
- Acknowledge that the participant has had a negative experience in the past.
- Focus their attention on the present and remind them that by attending this session they will have the opportunity to discover other ways of supporting students (while maintaining boundaries).
- Invite the participant to talk to you after the presentation. You could also suggest that the participant talk to a counsellor.
- Why isn’t this institution doing more to support students struggling with mental health?
- Acknowledge in a respectful way the participant’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.
- Does this session go over how to respond to someone who is suicidal?
- This session provides foundational training on mental health, and it does not include suicide, which is a very serious issue that requires more in-depth training. This training also doesn’t focus on how to recognize and support a student struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Substance abuse and mental health are closely linked, but this topic is beyond the scope of this foundational training.
Transitions and Difficult Conversations
While facilitating, you are likely to 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 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 success in this session?
- How did the 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?
Mental Health Models: Options for Institutions
The training uses the Mental Health Continuum to show different states of mental health and help participants differentiate between different mental health states.
Mental Health Literacy
Some post-secondary institutions already use what is known as mental health literacy to frame their mental health training and support. Mental health literacy is defined as:
- Understanding how to foster and maintain good mental health
- Understanding mental disorders and their treatments
- Decreasing stigma
- Understanding how to seek help effectively
For more information on mental health literacy, see Kutcher and Wei (2020).
If your institution uses the mental health literacy framework, this framework can easily be integrated into this training or replace the mental health continuum.
A good introduction to this model is a nine-minute video from the Mental Health Collaborative, The Mental Health Literacy Pyramid, which gives an overview of the framework and the different mental health states. If you have the time, you may want to show it to participants:
Resources on Mental Health for Further Reading and Preparation
Here is a list of videos and other resources on mental health. The resources are also listed in Handout 5: Videos and Other Resources on Mental Health.
How to make stress your friend (14:28 min.).
– Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal on the many advantages of stress.
The mental health literacy pyramid (9:28 min.), Mental Health Collaborative.
– Provides an overview of the Mental Health Literacy Framework and the different mental health states.
Why stress is good for you (Instant Egghead #40; 2:32 min.), Scientific American.
– Explains how stress can be viewed as helpful.
Comninos, A. (n.d.). Stress. Mindfulness and Clinical Psychology Solutions.
– Web article on the stress curve, different types of stress, and how to cope and manage stress. https://mi-psych.com.au/what-is-stress/
Kutcher, S., & Wei, Y. (2020). School mental health: A necessary component of youth mental health policy and plans. World Psychiatry, 19(2).
– Article on mental health literacy. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20732
Ohrnberger, J., Fichera, E., & Sutton, M. (2017, December). The relationship between physical and mental health: A mediation analysis. Social Science and Medicine, 195, 42–49.
– Article on the connection between physical and mental health. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953617306639
TeenMentalHealth.org. (n.d.). How not to bubble wrap kids: Learning how to use daily stress to develop resilience.
– Information sheet on using daily stress to develop resilience. https://mentalhealthliteracy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Stress-Two-pager.pdf
- “Creating a Safe Learning Space,” Trauma Awareness,” and “Self-Care and Community Care” are adapted from Consent and Sexualized Violence Training and Facilitator Guide: Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence in B.C. Post-Secondary Institutions, by the Sexual Violence Training Development Team (CC BY 4.0 License).
- “Scope of the Session,” “Questions that May Come Up and How to Respond,” “Transitions and Difficult Conversations,” “Mental Health Models: Options for Institutions,” by Barbara Johnston (CC BY 4.0 License).
- Mental Health Continuum © BCcampus based on the University of Victoria continuum of mental health, which is adapted from on Queen’s University continuum of mental health and the Canada Department of National Defence continuum of mental health.
- The Mental Health Pyramid was adapted from Mental Health Literacy for Student Leaders © UBC Student Health and Wellbeing staff.
- The Mental Health Literacy Pyramid by Mental Health Collaborative, Inc. Standard YouTube License.