Thursday, February 3, 2011

How to Develop Mental Health Awareness Programs

I love dreaming up innovative and engaging suicide prevention and mental health promotion programs with students and communities. When I am with a group in the brainstorming phase of what is possible, I get really excited about cool programs that might reach people in new ways. When we generate our list of ideas, and narrow down on what we THINK might work, we then ask ourselves, how will these ideas fit into a comprehensive and sustainable approach?

Here are three key steps to developing a successful mental health program:

STEP #1: Develop a Circle of Evaluation – we all know that resources for mental health promotion are precious on our campuses and in our communities, so we must make sure we are maximizing positive change. In order to do this, we need to find ways to measure our outcomes along the way. Throughout the process of the program’s development and implementation we can figure out what is working and what’s not by:

• Conducting a needs and strengths assessment to determine where the gaps on our campuses are

• Piloting our campaign or program before we implement to make sure we are on the right track

• Measuring immediate impact beyond just “numbers of people who attended” – what are we hoping happens after people have been exposed to our program? For ideas look into best practices in program evaluation.

• Evaluating longer-term outcomes – what is the ultimate purpose of our programs and are we meeting those goals?

One effective tool to use when developing a mental health program is a LOGIC MODEL. This process helps you think through the above questions and how they link together.

STEP #2: Look at All Levels of Prevention

When I ask folks which groups we need to focus on when we develop our suicide prevention and mental health promotion programs, I inevitably hear “everyone!” While it’s true that everyone can potentially benefit from some piece of a larger mental health promotion effort, I find when you try to reach EVERYONE, you end up reaching no one. As you develop your mental health program consider these three levels of prevention:

• Primary prevention is designed to reach a whole community by promoting general strategies that we can all benefit from (e.g., knowing the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255)

• Secondary prevention is targeted at high risk groups such as people with pre-existing mental health conditions or LGBT students. These strategies look at minimizing risk factors and bolstering protective factors for these groups.

• Tertiary prevention strategies focus on individuals who are already distressed and are designed minimize the impact of mental illness or suicidal behavior (e.g., promoting mental health services or support groups).

STEP #3: Research Evidence-Based Practices

When you are developing your programs, you should consult the Best Practice Registry to get some guidance on where to start. Because there is so much emerging research in the fields of mental health promotion and suicide prevention, you may find there is little research in your specific area. If this is the case, you can also look at respected theories like Dr. Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide or Dr. Patrick Corrigan’s work on stigma reduction to help guide your decisions. Be sure to also consult the safe messaging guidelines before you get too attached to an idea, because sometimes what we THINK helps people, actually can increase risk.

Resources for Next Steps

Please visit the following resources to research what we know works in suicide prevention:

I have a draft of a mental health programming booklet – please email me ( if you would like a copy.

Be creative! Be strategic! Have fun and let me know how it goes. If you want to share your programs with me, I would love to include them in the booklet.

For a more in-depth presentation of these topics, please listen to my podcast:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this Sally. I've got to develop a mental health program as a project for my Capstone class for School Counseling. This was very helpful.