On a wet and grey morning in early December I arrived at a church hall in rural Warwickshire for day one of a two day Mental Health First Aid training session. I was apprehensive as I drove into the car park, many thoughts swirling around my mind. What would the trainer be like? What would the other attendees be like? Would I be made to stand up and share my experiences? What will people think of me? What exactly is a Mental Health First Aider anyway and would I have what it takes to be one?! And so on! My stomach was churning as I made my way inside.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is the help offered to a person who is developing a mental health issue, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health issue or in a mental health crisis. MHFA is typically offered by someone who is not a mental health professional rather someone in the persons social network such as a family member, friend, colleague or someone working in a public facing role e.g. a teacher or police officer. Mental health first aiders are coached on how to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis, and potentially to stop a crisis from happening. We learn to recognise the warning signs of mental ill health and develop the skills and confidence to approach and support someone while keeping ourselves safe. Crucially we also learn how to empower someone to access the support they might need for, if not recovery, then successful management of their symptoms.
Being a mental health first aider is not about providing a diagnosis or therapy. It is, in short, the help given to someone experiencing a mental health issue before professional help is obtained. Phew! So I wasn’t here to learn how to be a mental health professional, somebody who is expected to have all the answers or be able to click my fingers and make everything better.
But what I did learn over the course of the two days was that mental health issues are much more common than I had previously realised. Did you know for example that it is estimated that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health issue each year, or that one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. There is still a stigma associated with mental health, partly because many people are not well informed, and many of those with mental health issues do not get adequate treatment or delay accessing that treatment often not realising that they need help or that help is available.
Through a mixture of presentations, group discussions (not as scary as I had imagined!), workshop activities and self reflection all in a relaxed setting, I gained a better understanding of mental health and the factors that can affect wellbeing.
One of my great worries has always been the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. At best I might, in my mind, look stupid or at worst I might make a huge mistake. I suspect I am not alone in this and that the fear of doing the ‘wrong thing’ has created a reluctance in so many people in assisting someone in a mental health crisis or who might be developing mental health issues. But the mental health first aider sessions also equipped me with practical tools to boost my confidence to step in and reassure a person in distress and what to do next.
This is what mental health first aid training does so well. It provides skills, knowledge and cultivates better understanding of mental health issues. By supporting ourselves and reaching out to those with mental health issues we can play a part in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health which have contributed to the inequalities and discrimination experienced by those with mental health issues. We can also provide potentially crucial support to someone who needs it WHEN they need it, whether its somebody in the midst of a mental health crisis or a non judgemental ear for somebody with an emerging mental health issue.
By the end of the two days I realised that its OK not to have all the answers. Being a mental health first aider you wont be able to solve all of someones problems. However, knowing that support is there, perhaps where they least expected it, might offer a beacon of hope for someone who is struggling. It might give them the boost they need to get themselves the professional help they need, help that they might not have known existed, to get to a safer more manageable place. Above all, they will know that they are not alone.
If you are interested in finding out more about mental health first aid training and how it can benefit you, more information can be found at www.mhfaengland.org Disclaimer! I can’t promise you the tranquil setting of rural Warwickshire or uninterrupted views across the fields with Warwick Castle just visible through distant trees. I am sure though that like me you will come away with a sense that what you have learnt has the potential to make a difference to someone’s world and with it the possibility to change the entire world.
Charlotte Slattery – HR Consultant at Absolute Works
If you have any questions about training members of your team to be MH First Aiders or any other queries surrounding the mental health of your workforce please do not hesitate to call and speak to a member of our team on 01926 355560 or contact us here