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Your Guide to Mental Health First Aid at Work

23 February 2024

The non-profit organisation Mind published a concerning statistic that one in four of us experience a mental health problem of some kind every year. Whether that’s depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, PTSD or another psychological ailment, the impacts on our personal and professional lives are wide-reaching and cannot be ignored. 

A mental health condition might, for example, cause us to feel unhappy, tired, irritable, unable to concentrate and unwilling to face the world. Those things can strain our relationships, and the quality of our work is likely to suffer too. Moreover, mental health is said to be the main cause for an estimated 12.7% of all sick days in the UK (of which there are approximately 185.6 million), highlighting the need for workplace support and initiatives that could help to reduce the figure.

One such way of supporting employees who might experience mental health issues is by implementing mental health first aid. It is offered by trained members of staff who can listen in confidence to the concerns of employees and take appropriate action to support them.

We’ve written previously about the merits and misconceptions of mental health first aid, but in this blog post, we want to answer some of the questions that you might have on the subject.

What is mental health first aid training?

Mental health first aid training is a programme with which you can equip your employees with the skills and knowledge they would need to provide initial support to a colleague who is experiencing psychological distress. 

It teaches them how to identify signs of mental health problems, how to approach the situation sensitively, how to have confidential conversations, how to provide non-judgemental support, and how to connect the employee with any additional help that they might need.

Whether you choose for the training to be delivered in-person or virtually, its format might include the following modules:

Understanding mental health

Typically, mental health issues aren’t as easy to spot as physical injuries, but they should be taken just as seriously because the consequences of not doing so can be so severe. Approximately one in five people have suicidal thoughts, and one in 15 act on them, illustrating the importance of providing support before things escalate to that point.

Recognising signs and symptoms

Because many people choose not to talk about their mental health, especially to their colleagues, issues can remain undetected but no less impactful. It is, therefore, vital that you equip your employees with the knowledge necessary to identify signs and symptoms that might suggest something is wrong. These might include an employee who has a persistently low mood, a loss of interest in activities, an inability to concentrate, irritability, restricted or binge eating, and evidence of self-harming behaviours.

Effective communication

If your mental health first aider believes they have identified a sign that could indicate their colleague is in trouble, training can equip them with the conversational toolkit needed to broach the subject in a respectful, sensitive and private way. Failure to do so could make the situation far worse. It is often the case that talking about psychological strain can make an issue seem far more manageable, an important first step in providing initial care and support before identifying if any additional expertise is required.

Confidentiality and boundaries

All conversations regarding a colleague’s mental health must be kept confidential by the first aider. They should reassure the person in distress that their information will not be shared without their explicit consent – except in situations where there is a risk of harm to themselves or others, which may require the involvement of appropriate authorities or professionals.

Complete discretion – where appropriate – is the cornerstone of mental health first aid. It ensures that the person seeking help can do so in an environment that is private and non-judgemental.

Mental health first aid should also stress the importance of boundaries. Adhering to these involves striking a balance between being empathetic and compassionate while respecting personal space and privacy. It’s crucial to recognise that mental health first aiders are not therapists or counsellors, but rather compassionate listeners and facilitators of help.

Referrals and additional resources

In some instances, it might be necessary for your mental health first aiders to refer their colleague in distress to a trained professional, an employee assistance programme, a crisis helpline, or community mental health services. This training module will equip them with the skills necessary to do so and highlight the suitability of each service to the distress that their colleague is experiencing.

Why is mental health first aid important?

Mental health first aid can provide early intervention which, much like the treatment of physical ailments, significantly increases the chances of a successful outcome. 

Your employees who become mental health first aiders can make a profound, lasting impact on the wellbeing of their colleagues, cultivating a compassionate workplace and creating a more resilient team. These things, in turn, are likely to contribute towards your organisation’s productivity and fulfil your obligation to provide a safe working environment under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974.

How long does the mental health first aid qualification last?

It is recommended that your employees take the Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) course every three years to refresh their knowledge and familiarise themselves with any developments that might have taken place in the intervening period.

Where can I receive mental health first aid training?

Mental health first aid training can be delivered at your workplace or at a venue that suits you. Our two-day training course is available for up to 16 participants and is accredited by MHFA England. For more information about the course and to book, visit our dedicated web page which can answer a few more of your questions.

Mental health problems are undeniably prevalent in our society and evidence suggests that they are only going to become more common. By providing mental health first aid training you are equipping your team with the skills necessary to spot signs of psychological distress, discuss the matter with their colleague sensitively and confidentially, and signpost them to getting the help that they might need. 

This proactive investment in your employees’ wellbeing not only enhances their ability to support one another but also contributes to a workplace culture that values mental health. It’s a step towards creating a compassionate and resilient workforce, where individuals feel supported in their roles and empowered to do their best work for an organisation that demonstrably cares.

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