Bronwen Dalley Smith, Communications and Events Officer, Money and Mental Health
My experience of Mental Health First Aid
Please note: this post contains information about suicide and self-harm that readers may find distressing. If you’re in need of support, you can call Samaritans for free on 116 123 anytime of the day – or you can text SHOUT to 85258. For information about where to find support with your money or mental health, you can find some resources on our get help page.
Yesterday I received a certificate. After two days of intensive training, I am now a mental health first aider.
When you think about first aid, you’ll no doubt be thinking in the physical sense – the recovery position, an elevated sprained ankle and maybe even CPR – but I doubt many people will think about it in terms of mental health. However, in January this year, the Prime Minister announced that mental health first aid training is to be offered to every secondary school in the country, as part of the government’s plan to “tackle the burning injustice of mental illness”, so I decided to check it out.
‘First aid’ is the assistance and care provided to someone experiencing an illness or injury, to prevent the problem worsening and to encourage recovery. Knowing the impact that a mental health problem can have on a person – it seems that in fact, mental health should be more than an afterthought when thinking about first aid.
What is mental health first aid?
Launched in England ten years ago, Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA England) is an organisation which has designed courses to equip people with education about mental health, to empower people to care for themselves and others, reduce stigma and support people to stay well. I attended a course on behalf of Money and Mental Health and was joined by twelve fellow trainees from a variety of backgrounds including finance, construction, energy and journalism.
Over the two days, we learnt about the symptoms and effects of depression, anxiety disorders, self-harm, eating disorders, psychosis and suicide. We were taught how to approach and communicate with a person who may be presenting concerning symptoms, and through films, case studies and roleplays, became equipped with the knowledge of how to provide support and, most importantly, offer a non-judgemental ear.
Despite what I thought I already knew, one of the things that stuck with me throughout the course was the importance of talking frankly about suicide. We discussed a few common myths surrounding suicide, including a couple I hadn’t realised that I had also been swept along with. For example, MHFA England suggest that you shouldn’t shy away from talking about suicide with people that you are concerned about, for fear of ‘giving them ideas’. It is more than likely that they have already given it a thought – and in fact asking direct questions about ‘how’ and ‘why’ can enable you to gauge how severe their needs are.
By talking openly about mental health, with someone who appears to be in distress, you’re opening the door to an honest conversation and giving them a platform to tell you exactly how they are feeling. Far better that, surely, than skirting around the topic, making assumptions, and ultimately preventing a person from accessing the correct support.
At the end of the course, it was great to hear how the other new first aiders were going to take their training back to their workplaces – from mental health coffee mornings and internal newsletters, to approaching HR to encourage more training in-house.
In addition to the mental health first aid action plan, the overriding takeaways from the training were to avoid making assumptions about how and why a person may be a feeling a certain way, regardless of your own experience, and to listen to them non-judgmentally. Although these are vital when providing mental health first aid, they are in fact important for pretty much every human interaction.
The course acted as an effective reminder of this for me, and I am chuffed to have completed the MHFA England training and receive my certificate. But regardless of whether we can attend a course, we can all make a difference by being that bit more compassionate, open minded and generous with our time and support.
Over the next two years, mental health first aid will be rolled out to secondary school teachers and staff, increasing awareness and understanding about mental health problems across the country – and surely that can only be a good thing.