#MHAW: Why we need mental health first aid at work

We ask IAB UK mental health first aiders what they’ve learnt from it and why they would recommend the training to other companies

With it being Mental Health Awareness Week, we ask IAB UK mental health first aiders Steph Clarke and Polly Raven on what they’ve learnt from it and why they would recommend the training to other companies.

Steph Clarke: What I learnt from training to be a mental health first aider

Before going on the course, I had assumed we’d mainly cover depression and anxiety in the workplace. While we did spend the most time on these conditions, I was also surprised that such a broad range of disorders were covered as well, from OCD to eating disorders and suicide - for some reason it had never even crossed my mind that someone might be dealing with this in the office. It was a real eyeopener.

At first, I felt slightly overwhelmed that I was learning how to approach someone who might be self-harming, but the course is definitely not about being there in place of a professional. It’s all about learning to spot the signs that someone might be struggling with their mental health and knowing the professional support available to direct them to, if they are not already seeking it themselves. We also learnt to use non-judgemental listening skills – listening purely to understand and being able to put your own views and values to one side. It’s natural to try to suggest quick fixes to a problem, but that’s often the last thing someone needs when things get too much (unless they are having a panic attack, in which case it’s very useful to know the quickest way to help someone ground themselves).

Aside from covering the right approach for different disorders, we came away with loads of exercises and resources to improve mental wellbeing generally, not just when you are finding it hard to cope. Overall, I think the key thing that I took away from the training was just how taboo talking about mental health currently is. Research commissioned by Mind found that one in five people take a day off due to stress, yet up to 90% feel unable to be honest about this being the reason for their absence, often lying and blaming a physical ailment instead. Hopefully having an equal number of physical and mental health first aiders in the workplace will help more people appreciate the fact that mental wellbeing is equally important. After all, in this day and age someone is far more likely to burn out from stress at work than need a bandage from the first aid kit.

Polly Raven: Why I would recommend the training to other companies

In any one year, approximately one in four people experience at least one diagnosable mental health issue. With this in mind, it’s essential that we as an industry acknowledge that mental health issues are a normal part of everyday life – both at home and at work. I would recommend this course because it explores the signs and symptoms of the many mental health disorders there are, and provides strategies for how to approach, assess and assist a colleague who may be experiencing issues that may be affecting her or his ability at work. The earlier we can spot the signs of a mental health issue in ourselves or a colleague, the sooner appropriate treatment and other sources of help can be sought, leading to greater wellbeing and recovery.

Personally, I found the course instrumental in opening my eyes to the importance of raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing, not only at work but also across our industry. Firstly to ensure our colleagues stay fit and well, but fundamentally to reduce the stigma around mental health. Once we open up the conversation around mental health at work via MHFA, we can shift to being a more socially inclusive industry, in support of people who have experienced mental ill health. It is this, I believe, that will be key to us making the most out of the incredible talent that lies within our organisations.

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