Mental Health Ambassadors


What is the Mental Health Ambassador Program?

(The following is the presentation given by Dr. Wei-Chien Lee at the 2009 ACPA Annual Conference, in which the MHA program received the 2009 ACPA Thomas Magoon Excellence in Counseling Award)

A Counseling and Psychological Center must be a social justice agent. It has ethical responsibilities of reducing inequalities in education outcomes, decreasing health disparities, providing multiculturally responsive services, and creating social change.

The Mental Health Ambassadors program was created to help San José State University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to further actualize its social justice missions

My students inspired this program. Many of them need to work full time to support their family and be a full time student, do not have equal access to resources, have been mistreated or discriminated against -- even by the current psychological and educational theories and practices. My students reminded me that culturally responsive services must be created and provided to help ensure social justice.

I kept asking myself, what can we do, how to create a win-win solution for students, CAPS, and the university? In Fall 2006, the light bulb went on, a grant was written, and after a hundred cups of coffee and several cakes, the Mental Health Ambassadors program obtained supports and officially started in Fall 2007.

Each semester, we interview and select students to become Mental Health Ambassadors. We cultivate them to be the official diplomats of the SJSU CAPS by the following mandatory and structured activities: Pre-semester one-day training, weekly training, 4 official CAPS activities (e.g., tabling, presentation), one final scholarly project, the "Positive Impacts" log, one educational consultation meeting, and four individual mentoring meetings. In addition, the Ambassadors are encouraged to actively identify themselves to the campus community. A 46-page “Mental Health Ambassador Handbook” was developed as the training manual and reference for the Ambassadors.

The Ambassadors have exercised their Ambassadorship creatively. For example: In a class, a professor said, “I think we might have a Counseling Services” Two of the Ambassadors raised their hands, identified themselves, and provided their class and the professor information.

  • Students made their first counseling appointment with Ambassador's accompanying them.
  • Ambassadors “reminded” department heads about addressing mental health needs and encouraging students to use CAPS.
  • Provided multi-language outreach (most ambassadors are bi-lingual and bicultural).
  • Chalk-writing the workshops on the boards of classrooms. 

The numbers of student contacts made by Ambassadors have been stunning. Last semester, the five Ambassadors made more than 400 student contacts and 10 class presentations. All Ambassadors have been invited back to the next semester to give presentations to more classes by professors. Our students seem to prefer to talk to the Ambassadors during outreach activities, I was often left alone, while students flooded the Ambassadors.

No words can capture the positive influence of this program. However, seeing the Ambassadors grow and knowing how much they are proud of and enjoy what they do are most rewarding. This year, two Ambassadors will present their final projects at the California Psychological Association Annual Conference. They will be among the handful of undergraduate students presenting in that conference. I asked them, "are you nervous?" They both replied, "actually, mostly exciting."

As a past forest ranger, I know that all seeds need water, sun, soil, and air to grow. I believe that, in many ways, social justice is also about giving each person proper and responsive environment for them to grow, and I know that the Mental Health Ambassador program provides us a great nursery for our students.

Who Are the Mental Health Ambassadors?

Mental Health Ambassadors (MHAs) are the ambassadors, official envoys, representatives, and messengers of the San José State University CAPS. They have the knowledge, skills, and attitude to be an Ambassador and to accomplish the Mental Health Ambassadors' mission. They also are liaisons between the SJSU community and the SJSU CAPS.

What Is the Mental Health Ambassadors' Mission?

To improve the psychological wellbeing of the SJSU students and SJSU community through

  • Promoting SJSU CAPS.
  • Increasing mental health literacy.
  • Reducing stigma associated with mental health disorders and problems.
  • Fostering a supportive and informative campus culture for issues related to mental health problems and mental disorders.

What Are the Mental Health Ambassadors' Objectives?

1. Increase SJSU students' knowledge and awareness about:

  • Mental health problems and disorders.
  • Mental Health literacy.

2. Reduce the stigma associated with mental health disorders and problems.

What Are the Main Requirements of Mental Health Ambassadors?

1. Open to challenges and excited about learning.

2. A positive attitude related to mental health disorders and problems.

3. A strong desire to improve the health of students and the SJSU community.

4. A cumulative GPA of 2.0 or better.

5. Complete the Ambassador Training, attend weekly meetings, actively participate in four CAPS activities (for example, tabling, presentation, outreach, etc.), and complete a final project related to mental health issues.

What Makes an Ambassador?

Having the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable them to achieve their mission and objectives.

1. The desire to learn, to help, and to promote a positive and accurate attitude about mental health issues (Being perky, extroverted, or outgoing is NOT required.)

2. Professionalism

3. Willingness to challenge self.

4. Willingness to apply the MHA knowledge and skills to take care of and improve self.

How Is MHA Different from Peer Counselors?

The MHAs are similar to Peer Counselors in having positive attitudes toward mental health, good communication skills, and skills and knowledge to help students to be healthy and successful. However, MHAs are different from Peer Counselors in:

  • Primary goal: MHAs' primary goal is making systematic change -- changing the culture and attitudes as well as reducing the stigma related to mental health issues for SJSU students and community. Peer counselors primary goal is to provide support to their peers and produce individual changes.
  • Main activities: MHAs are encouraged to create and engage in diverse programs and activities to help them to achieve their mission (e.g., presentation, tabling, designing handouts, participating in student organization meetings, talking to professors), while peer counselors mainly provide individual peer counseling.

I Am Interested, How Can I Find More About the MHA Program and How Do I apply?