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What does it mean to be a mental health first aider?

As part of our wider approach to wellbeing at work, we asked MGS team members Helen Raggett and Markus Offer to share their experience participating in Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid two-day training course and becoming workplace Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs).

What is Mental Health First Aid?

Mental health first aid is much the same as first aid. You are providing support to a person before professional help can be obtained. The aims of mental health first aid are:

There is a huge difference between Mental Health and Mental Illness. These terms often get grouped together, when they are entirely different things. We all have mental health which can fluctuate day to day, but mental illness is a diagnosis made by a medical professional.

Mental health first aid trains you to guide a person towards appropriate professional help. You learn to recognise the signs of mental health distress, provide initial help, and to ask about suicide.

Among other things it involves good active listening skills and being non-judgemental, as well as sharing information and encouraging conversations to promote better understanding of mental health.

What is it not?

Mental health first aid does not qualify you to therapise. It is a role that enables you to accurately signpost and become more confident in talking about mental health.

Why is it important to have Mental Health First Aid in the workplace?

Investing in workplace mental wellbeing helps to strengthen the positive and protective factors of being in work. It also helps reduce risk factors for mental ill health and improve general health. Mental health first aiders (MHFAs) can definitely play a part in this.

There may not be a statutory requirement as with a First Aider but the potential benefit of a MHFA in your workplace is huge. Mental health problems are extremely common and can affect as many as 1 in 4 people. Knowing more about mental health and talking about this more regularly takes away the stigma and helps reduce discrimination. This is something that you can help support in your workplace.

Having a MHFA in the workplace can help reduce distress and promote chance of recovery. Professional help is not always readily available and you can provide immediate support when this would not have been possible before.

What is the course like to take part in?

We did the course one day a week for two weeks with a cohort of people from a variety of workplaces. The course was both informative and enjoyable. It operates in a safe space where you can share experiences and learn from one another. Both our facilitators were excellent and highly knowledgeable and ran an interactive and valuable session. We were given an NHS handbook and discussed a variety of mental health support using group work to engage with one another.

There were PowerPoint presentations, activities, individual work, group work and this all made for a well rounded experience.

What else should your organisation consider?

As with a First Aider, you need to allow a Mental Health First Aider reasonable time to do this as part of their normal working hours. In addition, remember that it can be quite an intense role on occasion. This should be recognised and supported by line managers or a peer group of other MHFAs (depending on your size of organisation). Finally, having a MHFA should form one part of a wider approach to supporting staff wellbeing. It doesn’t replace the important role played by line managers, HR colleagues and other provision including employee assistance programmes or occupational health.

What are MGS doing to improve Mental Health and wellbeing in the sector?

MGS will be running regional MHFA courses in order to train people across the sector as mental health first aiders. We are planning for these to take place in Inverness, Glasgow and Dundee. If you are interested in attending and becoming upskilled to help your colleagues and organisation then watch out for details of these very soon!

Find out more

There is a wealth of information on supporting and promoting wellbeing and mental health in the workplace – including resources from MindSAMH and ACAS. It is also helpful to look into services locally to you, as understanding this will enable you to signpost staff more effectively.