First aid for mental health

I’ve never done a course in first aid, which has always seemed to represent a glaring hole in my CV. You never know, after all, when you might be called upon to apply an emergency tourniquet or, worse still, perform CPR.

But now there’s an altogether new species of first aider – the mental health first aider.

Pioneered in Australia, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a programme focusing workplace training in the subject. It’s now gaining traction in the UK, where one in four people experiences a mental health problem.

Poppy Jarman is CEO of MHFA England, through which around one thousand instructors have trained over 75,000 people in first aid for mental health since they began operations in 2007. She notes that:

“The fear surrounding mental ill health and the misunderstanding around recovery is one of the biggest barriers for creating mentally fit workplaces. We need to talk about mental health in the same way we do about physical health.”

MHFA would like to see every office in the land staffed with somebody trained in mental health first aid and, given the number of people now stepping forward for training, this goal may well be achieved.

Charlotte Walker was once a traditional office first aider, dealing with anything from chest pain to nose bleeds. Today, she gives first aid training in the workplace for the mind, not the body, teaching delegates how to respond to the rising number of mental health episodes.

Anxiety and depression are top of the list of problems they may have to deal with, and psychosis and suicidal crises, though not as common, are also important parts of the training. She says that most workplace mental health problems won’t be emergencies and that small acts of compassion by fellow workers are often all that is needed:

“Simple strategies like buddying up for walks in the park or encouraging each other to leave work at a reasonable time can help nip workplace stress in the bud.” 

This seems like common sense to me – i.e. to help a colleague battling with stress with practical suggestions. But common sense, it seems, is in increasingly short supply. So, too, is empathy, where the competitive and counter-productive culture of ‘me, me, me’ (especially in the workplace) can only cause alienation and exacerbate underlying mental health problems.

It is a sad reflection of our times that we need such a thing as mental health first aiders, the locus of ‘the battle’ now shifting from the physical (material) to the mental (spiritual), which is much harder to grasp and quantify, and much harder to treat. We are, indeed, in difficult times.


Written by Jacqui Hogan