Cal Poly Engineering Champions Mental Health: Faculty, Staff Lead the Way in Student Support 

Sarah Harding talks about mental health with her students
Mechanical engineering lecturer and mental wellness faculty scholar Sarah Harding gives a presentation on Mental Health First Aid during ME 263 (Introduction to Mechanical Engineering for Transfer Students). Staff and faculty trained in the program will visit all first-year courses this quarter to let students know they are supported. Photo by Dennis Steers

A team of College of Engineering faculty and staff newly trained as mental wellness champions will visit all 17 first-year courses this quarter to show their commitment to the care and support of students.  

The 14 champions from five departments were the first in the college to complete Mental Health First Aid – a program that equips participants to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders.  

Mechanical engineering lecturer Sarah Harding, who played a key role in advocating for Mental Health First Aid, hopes 40-50 staff and faculty will be trained by the end of spring. She also wants to see student leaders complete the course in the future.  

Her immediate goal, though, is getting the current cohort of champions into classrooms to let students know mental health matters and their doors are open.  

Faculty members trained in Mental Health First Aid pose for a photo
Faculty members trained in Mental Health First Aid attend the 2023 fall conference to encourage more members to complete the course that will be offered again this quarter. Pictured, from left, are Dean Amy S. Fleischer, Rob Carter (ME), Sarah Harding (ME), Aaron Keen (CSSE), Peter Schuster (ME), Behnam Ghalamchi (ME), Stephen Beard (CSSE), Ginni Callow-Adams (IME) and Rodrigo Canaan (CSSE). Photo by Dennis Steers

“Faculty can seem unapproachable to members of this generation, which is why talking about mental health and sharing our stories is so important,” said Harding, who will serve as the college’s mental wellness faculty scholar this year.  

She’s long been opening those lines of communication in her classes, starting the first day of each class by informing students about the resources available to them, from tutoring to counseling. She also talks candidly about her own challenges and recent ADHD/autism diagnosis.  

“When I share about my own neurodiversity and mental health journey, I get smiles and nods, and after class, I get multiple emails from students thanking me,” said Harding, adding her vulnerability allows her students to express their emotions. “We have to let our students know they aren’t alone.” 

Mental Health First Aid is a skills-based training course from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing that teaches participants how they can serve as a vital link between someone experiencing a challenge and the professional help they need. 

“The goal is to get certified to triage people,” Harding said. “You aren’t a counselor, but you are a resource.”  

More than 3 million people across the United States have received Mental Health First Aid training from 15,000 instructors since the course was developed in 2001 by a nurse specializing in health education and a mental health literacy professor.  

The course teaches people how they can apply the ALGEE action plan: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.  

Sarah Harding presents during the fall conference
Mechanical engineering lecturer Sarah Harding presents information about Mental Health First Aid to staff and faculty members attending the 2023 fall conference. She was named mental wellness faculty scholar this year and will continue raising awareness about a critical issue. Photo by Dennis Steers

Harding completed her training through San Luis Obispo County’s Transitions-Mental Health Association during the COVID-related lockdowns and at once recognized the value it could bring to the college community.  

With enthusiastic support from Dean Amy S. Fleischer, Harding found certified trainers on campus who administered the eight-hour course for college staff and faculty in April. Certification is valid for three years. 

The College of Engineering and department websites include a list of those trained in Mental Health First Aid so students can access help. Students may see mental wellness champions sporting their orange T-shirts on campus and can look out for office doors where orange stickers are affixed.  

“We want to let the students know we are representing the College of Engineering and that their mental health matters,” Harding said.  

The next training for staff and faculty will be conducted over two sessions, from 8:15 a.m. to noon Friday Oct. 27 and Friday, Nov. 3. For more information or to sign up, email Harding at

By Emily Slater