Mental Health First Aid and Awareness

By Zoe Bateman (ITC's General Manager)

It’s September, ‘back to school’, the end of summer and winter is on its way. For many of us winter can be a tough season; darker days, greyer skies and cold wet weather can bring on varying degrees of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Whether it’s a case of SAD or an ongoing mental health issue, the turning of the seasons feels like a good moment to check in with ourselves and our team regarding mental health and do away with some of stigma that surrounds it.

Approaching the subject of mental health can be daunting, with the fear of embarrassment or making things worse, thus creating a barrier to starting conversations and finding creating solutions. However, with 1 in 4 people experiencing some form of mental health issue in any given year, it’s an challenge many of us are likely to encounter – so having a better understanding of common mental health conditions and feeling empowered to speak about them can provide real reassurance for everyone in your company.

Back in June Jackie wrote about Stress at Work and how mental health issues are an increasing problem in the workplace. Through our conversations with the membership we are aware of how this a growing issue and we feel it is hugely important for us be able to support and promote good mental health within the sector. In order to have a better understanding of the subject, provide clearer advice and support our own team, I recently enrolled on a two-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course, run by Mental Health First Aid England in partnership with St John’s Ambulance. Since then I have been delighted to meet/hear of people who have also taken Mental Health First Aid courses. However, there are still many organisations who haven’t engaged with this kind of training or are not aware of it, so I hope the following will shed some light on what it is and why I feel it is beneficial to wellbeing in the workplace.

So, what is Mental Health First Aid? Much like physical first aid, it allows you to confidently provide initial assistance to someone with a mental health issue or is experiencing emotional distress. It does not mean you will diagnose or teach the condition, much like how being a physical first aider doesn’t make you a doctor or able to perform operations. During the course we were taught how to spot early signs of mental health issues, including warning signs of a mental health crisis; how to approach the conversation, how to offer initial help and guide a person towards appropriate treatment. We learnt about the most common mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, forms of psychosis and suicide. We covered the possible symptoms of each, risk factors, drug and alcohol misuse, how to use non-judgmental listening skills and how to practise self care as a MHFA (very important!). Since the course I have come to realise that one of the most important roles of a MHFA is to raise awareness of mental health issues and help to reduce the stigma and discrimination that surrounds it.

Much of the stigma surrounding mental health comes from people not being well informed. Common myths include: the idea that people with mental illnesses are dangerous; that it is better to avoid psychiatric treatment; that people can pull themselves out of mental illness through willpower; and that only people who are weak experience mental health issues. People who are mentally unwell can often be labelled as weak, lazy, selfish, uncooperative, attention seeking or not really ill. This lack of understanding and unhelpful attitude can cause people to avoid speaking up about concerns. Often not disclosing a mental health concern can be caused by worries about confidentiality or it having an impact on their job. Engaging staff in positive actions such as enrolling on a Mental Health First Aid training, reviewing your Dignity at Work Policy and/or taking part in some of the campaigns below can help to educate and show an openness around the subject.

One of the most interesting topics in the course was examining stress and its relationship to mental health. Predictably, stress has a huge, often negative impact on our mental health and with growing work demands, managing stress in the workplace can make a difference. It is important to take time to consider the stress triggers in your own organisation. Doing this as a team is essential as people have different stress tolerances and this allow them to share there copying strategies. Managers should have policies that take in to account situations such as people returning from having a baby (maternity and paternity leave), being diagnosed with a long-term illness or suffering a bereavement. I recommend reading, or rereading, Jackie’s Stress at Work article which outlines possible causes of work-related stress; signs to watch out for; practical adjustments and additional support ideas.

When it comes to mental health it is important to remember the support groups and community around you. ITC are always available to talk though complicated or sensitive situations, advise on practical actions, read over Dignity at Work Policies or suggest other professional specialist training/advice. If you would like to know more about the Mental Health First Aid course, please feel free to call/email me for a chat, or check St John’s Ambulance’s website (They run half, one and two day adult courses and a two day youth mental health first aid course - all across the UK)

And finally, here are some dates for your diary. Whether you simply tweet your support, mark the day/week with a team challenge, get staff together for an event, have a special mental health staff/board meeting or away day - I urge you to use these campaigns as an opportunity to check in with yourself and your team and work together towards a happy, healthy and stigma free working environment.

Dates for the diary:
- National Work Life Week: 7-11 Oct 2019
- World Mental Health Day: 10 Oct 2019
- International Stress Awareness Day: 6 Nov 2019
- World Kindness Day: 13 Nov 2019
- Blue Monday: 20 Jan 2020

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