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With mental health first aid training becoming more popular, will this new approach help the mental health crisis we’re in?

Cartoon showing a character that's not okay, with he friend saying 'that's okay'

I’ve been at my new job for a few months now and was recently offered the chance to take part in mental health first aid training. What is mental health first aid? Is that even a ‘thing’? Of course, I’ve heard of first aid for our physical bodies, but never for mental health. I was intrigued and keen to further my understanding, so jumped at the chance to get involved.

The first mental health first aid training program originated in Australia in 2001 in response to a survey that identified how little the general public understood about mental health issues. As a result, the training is used to train the public and employees across all types of businesses, all over the world.

The course I attended was run by St John’s Ambulance and consists of a two-day workshop. It’s not for the faint of the heart and deals – in-depth – with some very difficult issues. The aim, to provide delegates with a deep understanding of what mental health is and how to spot its warning signs.

With mental health becoming such a buzzword (and for good reason) it helps highlight the issues and bring them to the forefront. Being involved meant that not only could I make a difference to my colleagues but also, to friends and family. After all, everyone experiences some form of mental health, but with stigma around the issue – even today – people struggle to open and talk honestly about their thoughts and feelings.

Now that I’ve had a few days to process the course and reflect on what I learnt, I wanted to share some of the key concepts that I found useful. It’s important to remember that as mental health first aid support, you are not there to diagnose. You are there to listen. As a result, there will be times where you are having to deal with difficult topics, and you must recognise your limits and know when to take some time out for self-care.

THE MENTAL HEALTH CONTINUUM:

Firstly, we need to understand that mental health is not a binary state. It’s better to see our mental states on a spectrum where we fluctuate depending on internal and external factors and individual functioning. In brief, the table below shows the different states; green on the left representing a healthy mindset and red on the right representing critical illness. By familiarising ourselves with these states we become better equipped at recognising the warning signs.

STRESS:

Indeed, one of the biggest impacts on our mental health is stress. Stress is a very common reaction to extreme demands at work and other situations in our lives. It is not considered an illness but, when stress is prolonged and coping skills are poor it can lead to ill health.

In fact, I’ll be writing an in-depth post about stress and how it affects us but for now, I’ll leave you with this great video from DocMikeEvans.

Another key point I want to quickly mention, is a tool that helps us measure and become aware of our own stress levels. The stress container model demonstrates the relationship between an individual’s stress and vulnerability. The size of the container represents the level of vulnerability a person carries. Those with low vulnerability, who have healthy coping mechanisms tend to have large containers. Those with high vulnerability, who have troubles dealing with stressful situations tend to have smaller containers. It’s when our container’s overflow with too much stress that difficulties develop.  As individuals, we have to determine helpful coping strategies that alleviate this stress.

It’s a simple tool, but I found this to be an incredibly useful way to visualise the stress in my life. For some reason, when I’m visualising these factors, they don’t feel so daunting and overwhelming. I’m able to process them in a much healthier way by recognising my own limits and making sure I check-in with my coping strategies to alleviate that stress.

PROVIDING SUPPORT:

Significantly, to provide effective support for someone you must listen with intent, remain patient and be empathetic. These core traits are vital. While we’re there to talk with someone about their problems we’re not trained psychiatrists, so it’s important to not make assumptions or come up with a diagnosis when you are in a conversation.  With this in mind, remember that keeping your questions open-ended and the language neutral will ensure that the individual doesn’t feel pressured and lets them talk more honestly.

Generally speaking, all support that we provide is centred around ALGEE 5-step action plan. This is equivalent to psychical first aid’s acronym; DRABC (danger, response, airways, breathing, circulation).

A – Approach, access and assist with any crisis

L – Listen and communicate non-judgmentally

G – Give support and information

E – Encourage appropriate professional help

E – Encourage other supports and self-help

SUMMARY:

To sum up, we live in a society that demands immediate resolutions to problems, when in reality this isn’t a healthy mind-set. Each of us process our thoughts, feelings and life’s difficulties differently. We need to recognise this and stop chastising people for not feeling ‘normal’ (whatever that may be). We need to be open to having honest conversations and stop feeling afraid to even reach out.

So, is mental health first aid training worth it? It can certainly help increase mental health awareness. However, there is a concern that with mental health services in a crisis, the training will increase demand on a system that is already struggling. This has the potential to trigger individuals more as they would feel rejected by the services they were told were there to support them and this is a concern.

With our services under financial pressure, the government has promised to extend mental health crisis services, at a cost of £250m per year by 2023/24 but is this too little too late? With mental health issues on the rise year-by-year the issue isn’t going away.

The mental health first aid training won’t eradicate the issue, but I feel it is a step in the right direction. For too long we have lived with the attitude that sharing our thoughts or feelings means that we are weak. The more we can educate ourselves on the issue and accept that mental health is part of us all, with no exception, the more we can reduce the stigma. 

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