Physician Assistants Effective as Mental Health First Aid Instructors

The PA Foundation has established a fellowship to train physician assistants to be mental health first aid course instructors.

Mental health first aid (MHFA) is an international evidence-based course that teaches members of the public how to recognize symptoms of mental illness, respond to a mental health emergency, support someone in emotional distress, and guide others toward appropriate mental health resources and treatments. Results published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants indicate that physician assistants (PAs) are well-suited to be instructors for this type of course.

The PA Foundation selected 16 PAs (15 certified and 1 student) from a pool of 47 applicants to join the Mental Health Outreach Fellowship and become MFHA instructors; these PAs taught the course in their communities in the following year.

Researchers collected data on the number of MHFA courses taught, the location of the course, and the number of participants enrolled in each session. Following each MHFA course, participants completed an evaluation form that asked them to rate the course content, instructor presentation, and the practical application of the course on a 5-point Likert scale with 1 corresponding to strongly disagree and 5 to strongly agree. Participants were asked to evaluate whether the instructor was engaging and approachable, if the instructor demonstrated knowledge of the material, and if the instructor was clear and effective in facilitating discussions and activities.

Fellows provided MHFA training to 1595 people who participated in 116 courses in varied community settings during the year; 14 of the original 16 fellows completed the program. PA instructors had higher mean instructor presentation scores compared with the national average (4.82 vs 4.72). PA instructors also scored higher in course content compared with the national average (4.75 vs 4.66).

The researchers noted that although these results are not statistically significant, PAs are effective MHFA instructors. In addition, the authors acknowledged that the small size of the fellowship program limits the generalizability of this study’s findings.

The success of the Mental Health Outreach Program prompted the PA Foundation to expand the fellowship; the foundation plans to partner with community colleges to offer MHFA to community college faculty and staff. The study authors stated that as healthcare professionals, PAs can apply their clinical skills to help reduce the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.

“Having a PA as the MHFA instructor allows for a discussion about the PA profession and the role PAs can play in providing mental health support and treatment,” researchers stated. “Having PAs as MHFA instructors also lets community members get to know local healthcare providers outside the clinical environment.”


Forbes J, Pierce C, Sappe-Watkins L. Evaluating the effectiveness of the PA Foundation’s Mental Health Outreach fellowship. JAAPA. 2020;33(10):44-47.

This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor