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Why You Need a Mental Health First Aider in Your Business

Insights 9th October 2020
Why You Need a Mental Health First Aider in Your Business

What can employers do to protect the mental health of their employees? Our very own Mischa Walmsley explains the growing importance of having a Mental Health First Aider in your business.

We humans tend to have an instinctive understanding for how to deal with physical injuries.

As we progress through childhood to adulthood, our bodies interact with external forces, occasionally becoming damaged and requiring healing. If you stub and bloody your toe – as I did many times as a clumsy child – you or someone close to you cleans the wound and applies a dressing or a plaster. You may walk gingerly for some small amount of time. But you heal.

We quickly learn where our feet and elbows end, and we become less likely to hurt ourselves. For instance, I do not remember the last time I stubbed my toe. We apply caution through lessons learned and pains experienced.

Our bodies grow stronger and we train them to be healthier, faster and more resilient. We go to physiotherapy, personal training and yoga for both self-improvement and self-protection.

And yet, 200,000 years into our evolution as a species, the same sort of self-care for mental wellbeing is still generally regarded as a fringe pursuit.

When we experience physical aches or pains in a limb, we wisely choose to rest that body part, allowing it time to heal. Are you doing the same with your mental wellbeing when that requires healing? When was the last time you stopped to genuinely ask yourself “How am I doing?”

How are you taking care of your mental health? What are you feeding your mind?

I participated in countless first aid training courses throughout my youth. I was a cub, a scout and a venturer. As a matter of course, I was consistently, regularly and diligently trained in first aid from a young age. Upon joining the workforce, I was again trained in the basics.

I wasn’t aware that there was a mental health equivalent of this – until I had the privilege of being invited by The Matt Palmer Trust to join a Mental Health First Aider, MHFA, course. This practice started in Australia in the year 2000 and has subsequently spread across the world. As of 2019, over 3 million people had qualified as Mental Health First Aiders.

The course I attended had a specific focus of training groups of men. According to Samaritans UK, males are three-times more likely to commit suicide. This course aimed to help address the problem by using MHFA to contribute to a positive impact. Our trainer was Susan Butterfield I highly rate her training and would not hesitate to recommend her.

Below are some of my thoughts on that experience.

What is MHFA?

The Royal Society for Public Health have summarised MHFA perfectly:

“In the same way as people are trained to provide first aid for physical illnesses and injuries, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England courses provide training for the public in how to spot signs of mental health issues and provide first aid support.

The courses provide people with skills such as non-judgemental listening and the knowledge and confidence to guide a person to appropriate sources of professional support. Such early intervention can reduce distress, help to preserve life, and empower a person experiencing mental ill health to get support for recovery.

MHFA England courses are designed for everyone and are suitable for a range of community settings and organisations across sectors. Training options include tailored courses for supporting young people, students and staff in higher education, colleagues in the workplace, and people in the Armed Forces community, as well as the general adult population.”

Why should our People leaders take a MHFA course?

In an increasingly VUCA world people leaders need to equip themselves as best possible to manage the needs of their teams. Undertaking a MHFA course does not mean you will have to act as a therapist or front-line response for your organisation or team. But it may provide you with the skills to understand or interpret subtle signs of people at risk and help position you to respond accordingly.

Why should MHFA be on the agenda for your business?

“Change is the only constant in life” and business. You must adapt to the changing needs of your people, and your people need compassionate leaders who are invested in the wellbeing of their team members. This means it is not enough to have a fruit bowl and a gym subsidy. It is estimated that the wider cost of mental health issues is between £70-100 billion. Whilst the financial impact is staggering, the human cost is incalculable. If mental health isn’t in your strategy do you truly care about your people or your business?

Who should take a MHFA course?

Anyone. If I can learn how to splint a broken leg at the age of 10, you can definitely learn how to assist, advise and redirect a loved one or someone in your life to seeking appropriate professional help.

Should you take a MHFA course?

Yes. Broadening and deepening your understanding of mental health and your ability to communicate about it can only be a positive.

Why should you take a MHFA course?

If you’re interested in exploring your understanding of health and would like to equip yourself with some tools, techniques, and resources to complement that interest.

BUT…. One of the strongest statements I ever heard at the end of a physical first aid course was:

“One of the best outcomes is that you never have to use any of what you’ve learned here.”

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that even as a Mental Health First Aider, I’ll be present within my workplace when one of my colleagues experiences a situation that needs an immediate MHFA response. It is equally unlikely that broadcasting that we have a Mental Health First Aider in the company would result in me being approached passively or proactively by a colleague. I’m a white male who is close to 40 and therefore, some would argue, not the most approachable demographic.

What I do feel strongly about as a result of taking this course is that moving forward I will personally and professionally advocate for positive mental health in the workplace whenever and wherever I am able. Writing this is part of that promise to myself.

If every workplace had dedicated MHFA practitioners and Mental Health Advocates I have zero doubt that there would be an increase in a range of positive indications of health and happiness.

What has changed for me since taking the course?

I spend more time writing and sharing my thoughts on mental health. The course I completed served only as an introduction to the practice of MHFA, but I’m seriously considering taking the full certification, which will allow me to train others to become MHFA practitioners and Advocates.

What next?

For me, on a personal and professional level, I have encouraged many of my colleagues to explore MHFA as I felt would find this beneficial. I would like to see a culture of support, communication and sharing grow as a result. I would like to see a practice of mental health knowledge and advocacy, with colleagues encouraged to talk openly about mental health.

Utopic? Perhaps. I know that the wheels of change are already in motion, but I am impatient.

Diatribes aside, the workplace is evolving very rapidly, at speeds that we have not seen since the age of the industrial revolution. How employers treat employees is greater scrutiny and necessarily held to higher social, cultural and moral standards then before.

How healthy and happy our employees are is as important to building strong, scalable and productive businesses as their output and deliverables.

Thanks for reading my article. I’d like to leave you with some final questions, which I hope will inspire you to begin the conversation about MHFA at your business:

1.  If your workplace doesn’t have any MHFA trained colleagues; why not?

2.  If you can’t readily and confidently say that you have an environment that encourages an open dialogue on Mental Health; Why not? And where do you start?

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