PA Student Juggles Academics and Mental Health Outreach

Connecting Compassion to Community Need to Improve Mental Health

March 29, 2019

By Divya Williams

Hwal Lee at Vinton Library in Vinton, VA
Hwal Lee at his first training session at Vinton Library in Vinton, VA.

Last year, the PA Foundation Board of Trustees identified mental health as a priority focus area and launched the Mental Health Outreach Fellowship. Designed to connect PAs’ clinical expertise and compassion to community need while emphasizing mental health, the fellowship was the first phase of the Foundation’s mental health outreach efforts. The first cohort of fellows attended a three-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor training to become certified as MHFA instructors, and then were tasked with conducting outreach in their communities. Of the 16 fellows, there was just one PA student in the group, passionate enough about mental health to juggle the duties of the fellowship with the responsibilities of his academic career: Hwal Lee.

Journey to the Fellowship
Lee, originally from Australia where the PA profession doesn’t yet exist, first learned about the profession when he moved to the U.S. and knew he’d found his calling. Lee was a trained counselor and had completed MHFA training in 2010 in Australia, where the training and movement originated. Prior to beginning PA school, he had about 10 years of paid and volunteer work experience in healthcare and human services in both Australia and the U.S. Mental health proved to be a true passion for Lee as he worked in a variety of settings including homeless health, medication-assisted treatment, inpatient behavioral health, detoxification, and psychosocial rehabilitation.

Lee is currently in his first year of PA school at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia. When he first heard about the fellowship, he thought it sounded like a perfect fit. “I already had some familiarity with the content of the training, and I was interested to see how it was adapted for the U.S. audience,” he says.

Speaker at MHFA instructor training at AAPA headquarters
Attending the three-day MHFA instructor training at AAPA headquarters, March 2018.

Mental Health First Aid instructor training
Before beginning their own community outreach, fellows took part in an intensive three-day training. “Walking into the training room and learning that all other fellows were practicing PAs — it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I was a little starstruck,” Lee admits.

The instructor training was led by two master instructors and required fellows to present an assigned portion of the Mental Health First Aid curriculum. It also gave fellows an opportunity to get to know each other as well as AAPA and PA Foundation staff.

Lee says he would recommend the program to PAs and PA students with a passion for and genuine interest in mental health, general knowledge of mental illnesses and substance use disorders, and experience teaching or facilitating groups. “Having a realistic understanding and expectation of the responsibilities would also be helpful to consider,” Lee advises, “because being an effective and successful MHFA instructor entails so many moving parts.”

Taking to the community
Lee hosted his first community training session two months after completing the fellowship training. It didn’t come without its challenges. “I was so eager to start teaching, the initial challenge was getting others in the community on board,” he shares. “I learned quickly that not everyone perceives the same value in MHFA training as I do.” Lee wasn’t deterred: “That’s also part of my role—to inform and educate the community about this evidence-based public education program.” He continued to pursue opportunities and eventually gained the support of several partner organizations around the Roanoke Valley. He can now say he’s trained almost 200 community members.

Having fun at a faculty and staff training session at Jefferson College of Health Sciences, Roanoke, VA.

While Lee has the unique experience of being a Mental Health Outreach Fellow as a student, he also has the added difficulty of having to split his time between his academic responsibilities and making time for trainings. “Teaching MHFA is almost like a retreat that takes me away from the intense schoolwork, even if it means that much less study time,” Lee says of juggling the behind-the-scenes work that goes into planning, organizing, and delivering these eight-hour trainings. “And like any good hobby, it’s fun and invigorating.”

Inspired to focus on mental health
The fellowship emphasized Lee’s interest in and dedication to engaging with mental health. “The program has deepened my commitment to serving the underserved. People experiencing mental illness and substance use disorders are some of our most underserved community members,” he states. When he begins practicing, Lee plans to address the gaps in primary care: “I hope to be able to practice integrated primary care where I can focus on family medicine and behavioral healthcare equally.”

As a future PA with experience as a counselor, Lee will have a unique view of providing care from two different positions. He says: “Something I’m most looking forward to in my future role as a PA is to diagnose and use biological treatment for mental illnesses and substance use disorders, because this is something I’m unable to do as a counselor.”

The fellowship gave Lee the tools he needed to impact his community in a positive way. “The experience has pushed me to reach out and engage local organizations in hopes of increasing awareness of mental health. I’ve been able to connect with people in the community, have conversations, and build collaborative partnerships,” Lee says. “This ‘human’ aspect of the whole experience is priceless, and I certainly value and acknowledge its role in my future practice as a compassionate and competent PA.”

Staff stands at a training session at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, VA
Lee with attendees of a faculty and staff training session at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, VA.

Paying it forward
The PA Foundation remains committed to mental health education and training. In 2019, the Foundation will expand the initiative to community college campuses, equipping PA fellows to lead training sessions for community college faculty and staff.

Interested in getting involved? The Foundation relies on the power of PAs giving back to support its mission. Gifts empower PAs – like Hwal Lee and the other PAs who are educating their communities through Mental Health First Aid – to put their compassion and clinical expertise to work to improve health. Consider supporting this important initiative and donate to the PA Foundation today.

More Resources
PA Foundation
Support the PA Foundation’s mental health outreach efforts
Mental Health Outreach Fellowship
Mental Health First Aid