What’s it like to be a workplace mental health first aider?

30th September 2020

Found in more and more workplaces, mental health first aiders are ordinary members of staff who have been trained to spot the signs of mental illness, and to guide colleagues to the help that they need.

We spoke to two of our own mental health first aid team about their roles and the importance of being able to access support for good mental health at work.


You're both part of the mental health first aid team at Emerald. What was it that made you want to become mental health first aiders?

Fiona:

For me it was the training being offered. I'd dealt with people who'd had mental health issues in the past and just wanted to know a bit more about different conditions rather than just limit it to experiences that I've encountered in my life. I liked the idea of being able to apply it in a work setting without it becoming uncomfortable - just to make more of a natural thing to talk about and make people feel empowered that they can discuss issues if they had any.

Catherine:

It's pretty similar for me. I have a history of mental illness myself and within my family. There's so much pressure to have work and life as separate parcels, but mental health can impact you at any point. You can't just segment your day out to say, "Right, I’m dealing with a mental health problem right now, but when I go through that door at work, suddenly it’ll disappear. I haven't got any anxieties. I'm fine." And switch them off like a tap. I quite like the idea that we were breaking down those stigmas and I felt it would be useful, like Fiona said, to understand mental health and what it means to be a mental health first aider.

You've both mentioned the training as one of the reasons being a mental health first aider appealed to you. Can you tell me a bit about what was involved in the training?

Fiona:

It was two full days and it could be quite emotionally draining because you're talking about some really serious topics. On the other hand, it gave us the opportunity to discuss with one another, in what felt like a really safe space. People really opened up about troubles they've had. It wasn't just sort of sitting around talking. We were sent off into groups to work through scenarios too. We really covered a lot of bases in two days. I came out of it exhausted, but happy and sort of confident as well because I knew so much more.

Catherine:

It did go through a whole spectrum of different things from anxiety right up through to PTSD, schizophrenia and suicide. If you think about a scenario where somebody's approached you as a MHFA to talk about suicidal thoughts, I was anxious about how we might be trained to deal with that- not being able to help signpost someone to appropriate help was a real fear I had about becoming a mental health first aider. But they did give us lots of tools and information. We also received a manual for reference, which is a useful resource to have.

So, yes it was emotionally draining but very enlightening and very engaging. And there was lots of bonding. You don't realise how many people that you sit with day to day have got all this other stuff going on in their world, you know? I thought that was fascinating and very empowering.

Since the training have you had anyone coming to you to talk?

Fiona:

I haven't directly, but even prior to me having mental health first aid training people would come and talk. The training has helped me craft conversations with people if feel a bit concerned for them. It gave me that confidence to ask, "You alright?" You know, when you've got that person who replies to an email at 3am, and they've signed up to 25 different projects? It made me feel that I could approach them and do it in a way that wasn't patronising or intruding.

I also felt I was able to look after myself better, which is a big thing, because if I'm not looking after myself, who is going to support the people that I support? So, I took it home as well, and I've used it probably more outside of work than in work. But you know, that's what it's far it's for. You're not only a First Aider at work. Why not use it wherever you can?

Catherine:

I've had a few people come to me and, like you were just saying Fiona, sometimes you can spot it before they spot it. Because you've got that mental health first aid training, it takes away the potential for them to think you’re just being nosy. I think that helps people realise they're part of a corporate culture that is open to talking about mental health issues. And I felt equipped to help and was able to signpost appropriately and keep in touch and follow up when that was needed.

What do you think is the most rewarding part of being a mental health first aider?

Fiona:

It empowers you to have those conversations. We're not therapists, we're not counsellors and we wouldn't want to take on that level of responsibility because we're not qualified to do that. But just to have those skills and feel that you could possibly help someone and get them on the right path, get them to seek the right treatment or strategy for them to deal with their mental health. That's just great.

Catherine:

It's just a privilege if you're able to be there for someone just at the right time and you're able to intervene at a really crucial point that helps to make their day better, or you’ve signposted somewhere for professional help, and they get that support. You might learn later down the line that it's helped them, and they've been able to move forward. That's one of the most wonderful things that can happen. The reward comes just from the fact that they've been able to share, and it’s made a difference to their health.

How important do you think it is for companies to acknowledge that people have these kinds of difficulties and to provide schemes like this, that give support in the workplace?

Fiona:

I think it's one of those topics sort of trends in organisations. You know, there's a lot of talk about it, but there's no discernible actions. When a company does take very clear action related to their stance on mental health, that is what makes them stand out. Providing training that breaks down those walls and creates trust between colleagues, employees and managers, between departments and HR - that makes people realise that it's okay.

Catherine:

It shouldn't be a tick box exercise. It should definitely be a cultural shift. But changing cultures is not always easy. We're trying to embed that understanding that it's okay to talk. But there are still people who feel, "It's not okay to talk. You keep your work at work and your home at home." Or someone will talk about depression and the reaction might be, "What have you got to be depressed about?" So, like you say, it's the trust and openness, but it's also setting an expectation that there is understanding, and there are people trained to empathise, engage and give guidance.

What would you say to someone was might be thinking about getting involved as a mental health first aider in their company?

Fiona:

if you're interested in, then just do it. The training is really intense, but it is totally worth it. It's just helped on so many levels: the confidence to talk about mental health, the empowerment to feel like you can help people.

Catherine:

What she said! There are quite a few mental health first aiders here and it's not just about the training, it's about bonding and supporting each other once the training is over. There’s a real camaraderie that comes along with it as well.

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