Mental Health First Aiders share their experience of the MHFA programme

5 May 2023

R: I can remember going to watch a Steps programme on Mental Health Awareness at BAE Systems back in 2018-19, and it really sparked something in me.  That energy led me to find out about the MHFA training course and apply to go on it, becoming Steps’ first Mental Health First Aider.  When I went on the course, I didn’t realise how much I’d learn.  The 2 days I spent in that room with those people was just incredible…

G: I completed my course online – but I still really enjoyed it.  It was timely too – we’d been through 2 lockdowns and, like most organisations, were thrust into uncertain times with the challenge of how we should support our people in the ‘new world’.  I’d just come back from furlough to a new role with a greater focus on personnel and we were developing a wellbeing policy for our colleagues – so the timing was perfect and the course was so helpful for me at that time…

The Steps Charter (values) has always been really important to me.   I think I’m naturally a ‘people person’ – and I’m so proud of our culture of putting people first and having wellbeing as a key part of our company Vision and behaviours.  I’ve always tried to live the values and uphold them where I can – so this felt like a way to enhance and develop myself in a way that felt organic, and an extension of my own passion and belief in something that’s really important.

R:  Initially my reasons for doing it really were to learn – but to be honest I didn’t realise how much it would shift me.  I had to adopt new habits over time.  As a Mental Health First Aider you are there to listen, reassure and respond – in fact, doing more than that can be damaging.  Your natural instinct might be to make that person feel better, always with good intent – and you might be tempted to use phrases like ‘It will get better’, ‘At least, xxx’ – but actually you need to resist that – and instead switch to listening and gently exploring it with them.  What do you want to do?  How can I support you?   People, in my experience, get three quarters of the way through the conversation and then say, ‘I just feel so much better/lighter having spoken to you about it’.  I often say, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ and I think that’s so true – they’ve got it out of their head.   They just need to talk, be listened to and feel heard.

G:  Completely agree.  The more conversations I’ve had – I’ve realised I’m continually developing.  The principles I’m applying may be the same or similar – but I’m accruing knowledge and experience all the time – management strategies, understanding how mental ill health manifests and how people respond to stresses.   Although that makes me feel more confident and equipped to have conversations – I do always work hard to not solutionise.  That’s such a human response and my natural instinct in that I want to relieve the stress or ‘problem’ for my colleagues – but actually listening and not solutionising is so much more enabling for these conversations, in my experience.

R:  The other area I found really powerful exploring on the course was stigma around mental health conditions, which is often made worse by representations in the media or in popular culture.  For example, people live day to day with different mental health conditions but for many of us the only experience or awareness we have of the condition is often a headline or storyline when something awful has happened.  That is not the ‘norm’ for most people but it’s what we are presented with and often led to believe.  So, if you’re someone living with a condition that is often only depicted at a crisis point, you may then be less likely to disclose it to those around you, to your colleagues at work – it might even stop you seeking the support you need.  Stigma and misrepresentation can be really damaging.

I also became so much more aware of the language that’s used.  For example, we don’t say ‘commit suicide’ anymore – because that’s a reference to when it was an illegal act and so to ‘commit a crime’.  It is not a crime, so now we say that someone has ‘died by suicide’ or they’ve ‘completed suicide’.  And that’s a huge shift – many people don’t realise the impact that language can have.  It’s important to talk about suicide, however hard that may be.  Human nature is often to avoid those difficult conversations or avoid using these terms, or risk getting it ‘wrong’.  We need to stop avoiding these conversations.

G:  Language and cultural sensitivities are so important to consider when we’re talking about mental health, especially when you’re working as a global team.  In some cultures, people might feel more nervous or uncomfortable about having conversations because of stigma or taboo – in others it might be more acceptable to share how you’re feeling or to have candid conversations.

It can also be challenging when you aren’t always in contact with the broader team (either virtually or in person).  This is sometimes a challenge for me in my role – and particularly when thinking about how we interact in the hybrid world.  Rachael, you would probably hear and know more about the pressures and anxieties that are brought about through project and client-led work because you’re in that team.   You probably see and hear people ‘leak’ their emotions or reactions more than I do – those signs that an individual might appreciate a conversation perhaps?

R:  Yes, that’s probably true – although I think sometimes the ‘critical distance’ from an individual’s immediate team can sometimes be helpful and means that they might open up more so it can go both ways.   Hybrid working has undoubtedly brought challenges – in terms of creating a space online where people feel you are ‘there’ for them, giving them your complete and total focus – but for some people I think they’ve felt more comfortable having a chat remotely.  There is something about giving those physical cues – clear indications that you’re listening – communicating attention through your own physicality and perhaps amplifying those cues more when you’re online.

G:  And I think we have to continually adapt too.  Stress and anxiety affects people differently, of course.  There are some individuals for whom the ‘markers’ are more visible or obvious, some people that I’ve known longer and therefore I recognise their stress markers – but then I’m also getting to know new colleagues and want to be able to build the same foundation rapport and understanding with them.  The principles of empathy, safety, security, patience, listening skills, removing judgement, building trust, knowing when to approach/when not to approach ,etc – those are things that I can bring to any conversation with any individual – and things that I know I’d appreciate if I needed to talk about my own mental health.

R:  And that’s a really important point – because as Mental Health First Aiders we have to be in a healthy space in order to be able to support our colleagues.  In our own programmes we use the analogy that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ – meaning that your own mental health reserves need to be sufficient before you can then help others.  I know I need to be well myself, before I can hope to be helpful and supportive to my colleagues and Mental Health First Aid England have online resources available for Mental Health First Aiders – so those have been a great source of support.

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