Mental health first aid isn’t a new concept, it’s been around since the early 2000’s but I believe that we still aren’t getting it right as a society. I’ve lost count of the amount of horror stories of mental health first aiders

  • Trying to be a therapist and getting it completely wrong
  • Feeding back what was said in a supportive conversation to senior figures in the company (this is called being a dick, don’t be that person)
  • Not needing their skills until years later and then panicking when something pops up
  • Taking the course but not feeling confident to be a mental health first aider, even once they have the certificate

I also regularly speak to organisations who spend £££ on training a bunch of mental health first aiders only for it to come to nothing and all what money and time wasted.

So, what’s going wrong and what can we do about it?

Is the training provider right?

Before we dive down into the individual areas there’s something important to discuss and that’s mental health first aid trainers and this is where it gets a little confusing. First off, there are thousands of them, some of them great, others terrible. There are also different training bodies that train these trainers and then have a network of trainers across the country, MHFA England being the biggest and most well known but they’re far from the only or (in my opinion) best training body and there are others, but which one is best?

The answer isn’t a simple one because it varies person-to-person but as a basic, I’d suggest looking for a provider who:

  • Assesses delegates to ensure they’re competent and confident, not just a certificate for turning up
  • Has previous experience with mental health & mental illness – Whether that’s lived experience or professional experience
  • Doesn’t charge you the earth (if you’re paying £250+ for one person to take a standard course you’re possibly paying too much)
  • Is regularly quality assessed by an independent body to make sure the training is safe, effective, and up to date?
  • Will work with you to implement mental health first aid properly (more on this later)

We choose the wrong people

Employee: “I keep having thoughts about hurting myself and I’m worried”

Mental health first aider “Don’t be silly, you have a great life!”

This was a real conversation that one of my clients witnessed before they started working with me and is an example of getting it perfectly wrong.

It might make sense to select people based on their position within the company. Maybe all managers, all team leaders, or all HR roles. But a person’s job role doesn’t mean they’re the best person to support others.

It may also not be best to go for people who have highly pressured, busy jobs where they won’t be available to take an hour out to chat to someone for example someone on a busy service desk.

So who do we want? People who are:

  • Compassionate & caring
  • Good listeners
  • Able to keep things quiet
  • Interested in mental health
  • A natural choice for people to chat with if they’re going through a tough time

What I tend to suggest for my larger clients is we put together a simple selection process to find the most appropriate people which that might look like:

  1. Advertise the role
  2. Run a short webinar on what is involved
  3. A short chat with each applicant

However, you go about it, don’t just blindly pick people based on what they do in the company, this can have some say in it, but we’ve all met managers who we would never speak to about what’s going on in our heads or at home.

We use it to tick boxes

  1. Company decides to get some mental health first aiders
  2. They train a handful of people (usually not enough)
  3. They announce on social media that they have done this
  4. Nothing happens

OK so I may sound a bit cynical here but this is a scenario I have seen way too often. Now don’t get me wrong, I think mental health first aid can be a brilliant tool. I’ve seen it used effectively so many times and to the extent where lives have been saved on multiple occasions and it’s a course I love delivering. But at the end of the day, it’s a training course, and like any other training course we can take it and then never use it again.

The problem with this is that it’s not a cheap course (some providers charge £250 – £300 per person) so if you were to train 10 people then that’s a potential £3 grand down the pan. Also, because the world of mental health is so complex and constantly changing skill fade is a very real thing here so a person may not use these skills for years and then something happens and they don’t feel comfortable or confident to deal with it.

When it comes to mental health first aiders we need to make sure we

  1. Are using the right provider (see point 1 above)
  2. Are training enough of them (I recommend a ratio of 1:15)
  3. Are constantly publicizing who they are, what they can do and how to contact them in the organisation

We treat it as a reactive resource only

When I say ‘Mental health first aider’ the image you probably have in your head in someone who is there ready to help when someone is in distress and looking for support. And yeah, that’s a thing and it happens. In fact, many providers seem to only focus on that scenario. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but we can be doing so much more with a very valuable resource.

And by resource, I mean people who are interested, passionate and trained in mental health. Because mental health first aid isn’t the only thing organisations should be doing when it comes to wellbeing we can use the mental health first aiders as a proactive resource in the workplace. Encourage them to drop in and see how people are getting on, feedback to HR if something is causing stress at work and even take an active role in wellbeing activities.

For example, one of my clients recently had a handful of their mental health first aiders research a particular topic related to mental health and then do a 5-minute presentation on that topic to the workforce. Nothing in-depth o complicated but just enough to keep the conversation going and normalise mental health. Things like ‘What does self-care look like?’ and ‘What is emotional resilience?’

Real support isn’t a process

This is a huge bugbear of mine. If you’ve ever attended any mental health first aid course you have been presented with a step-by-step process accompanied by an acronym of different letters that you’re expected to remember when you have someone in front of you talking about suicide.

Mental health isn’t linear or process-driven

I get it that some people like to learn by process like there’s a checklist of things to say in a certain order and if you learn that way then that’s fine but this just isn’t the case when it comes to having a supportive conversation with someone.

For example, the process might say

  1. Check for risk of harm
  2. Listen
  3. Reassure
  4. Signpost

The person may want reassurance before they even start to speak, checking for harm isn’t always necessary or appropriate, they may not want signposting, they may just want to vent off and that’s enough for them to feel much better.

It’s a fluid conversation where our concern is for the person in front of us (By the way, sitting face-to-face isn’t always the best approach), not for the process.

I’m constantly stressing that having a supportive conversation with someone is just that, a conversation and shouldn’t be approached as a clinical, formal consultation because even someone who is trained to do that (like a therapist or mental health nurse) will still treat it as a conversation most of the time.

Let’s wrap it up

I like mental health first aid, I really do. What I don’t like is how for many training providers it’s a half-finished product suited to some presented and charged for as the complete thing suited to all.

We (the training providers) can do better, and we must start to do better. This isn’t something we can half-arse and walk away with a smile because we got paid – job done. Not every person is the same, not every organisation is the same and not every conversation is the same. We should be giving a selection of skills and tools to delegates and then supporting them and the organisation with implementing these tools