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We test... Mental Health First Aid training

Mental health is still taboo in the workplace. We find out, firsthand, how to spot someone is struggling and be a first line of defence

Imagine the scenario. Someone suffers an accident in the office – is scalded by hot water, suffers a deep cut, or falls and breaks something. There is no one on hand to assist. No one has taken any form of first aid training, and the company has no basic first aid supplies to hand.

For most – particularly HR and health and safety professionals – the health and wellbeing, and of course reputational, fallout of this doesn’t bare thinking about. And yet imagine the same scenario but in the case of mental rather than physical illness. Imagine an employee exhibiting signs of mild or even serious depression and no one around them feeling equipped to intervene.

This is in fact exactly the scenario played out across many, if not most, organisations today, even within those most progressive, health and wellbeing-focused firms. Stats from Canada Life Group Insurance, covered by HR magazine at the end of last year, show more than half (53%) of employees with mental health conditions have not made their employer aware of it, with the finding that 16% of non-sufferers agreed with the statement 'everyone gets stressed and to treat it like a physical illness is an overreaction', a telling insight into why this might be.

It’s a reality that many are keen to tackle. And it’s a reality I’ve come to find out how to combat on a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course, with MHFA trainer of eight years Hazel Sawyers.

In the room are a range of people, including occupational health practitioners, a student counsellor, an HR professional, and someone working within prison drug and alcohol services. Sawyers tells me later that this range is fairly typical. The people she doesn’t see enough are line managers and non-wellbeing focused workplace team members; those that do come have often corralled their company into sending them, or paid for the course themselves.

Sawyers explains the power of having “people in all corners” of a company equipped to deal with mental health issues. This normalises such issues and reduces stigma, and ensures that it is that person who happens to first encounter someone struggling, who knows what to do. “It doesn’t have to be a mystery, it’s not that deep,” says Sawyers. “People just have to get on board, train their staff and everybody wins.”

This demystification of mental health, and providing practical, clear tools to use, is clearly the name of the game right from the start of the training. “Wouldn’t it make sense if just as when someone breaks their arm, everyday people knew what to do?” Sawyers asks at the beginning of the day, explaining: “You’re not going to be a therapist by the end of this session. It’s not going to give you a degree in mental health. What it will do is boost your knowledge and skills around mental health.”

What follows is exactly this. I learn first of all that if someone seems overly stressed, anxious or is exhibiting signs of depression (we spend some time talking through and debating these signs), I need to first assess the potential for harm to myself and others; then listen non-judgmentally; give reassurance that such experiences are common and there are plenty of examples of people who’ve worked through them; encourage the person to seek professional help; and encourage them to think about self help strategies.

Other helpful checklists include CPR for talking to someone at risk of suicide (Current plan: what it is they might be intending to do; Prior Behaviour: whether they’ve made attempts before and if so what helped; Resources: do they have the means to go through with the attempt, i.e. access to drugs or a weapon?). This seems a particularly important checklist in light of how taboo, and how panic-inducing, such conversations would otherwise be.

We learn highly practical tips in relation to suicide, such as avoiding the words 'committing' (due to connotations of this being a crime) and 'successful.' We learn how dangerous it can be to analyse motives or try guilt as a tactic for dissuading someone (telling someone to consider the impact on their children for example).

“Don’t be afraid to ask about suicide; it’s a myth that will give people ideas,” says Sawyers, adding that it’s also a myth that, because someone’s talking about suicide, they aren’t at risk of actually following through.

But most helpful by far of all the day’s activities (video watching, debates and brainstorming...) is the chance to practise non-judgmental listening. For this we spilt into groups of three and take turns to be the talker, listener and observer, tasked with noting down how well the listener is doing.

‘How hard can listening to someone’s concerns and applying some responding techniques be?’ I, very naively, think as we start the exercise. Turns out: very hard. My ‘talker’ has been briefed to be particularly evasive and prone to long silences. The urge to jump in with a premature prompt or solution is almost physically irresistible.

Each time Sawyers feeds back to the group she tells us we’re all still asking too many questions. “A lot of you naturally go into interview mode. That’s what we do in our jobs,” she says. “But it’s not that kind of thing… If someone’s never talked about this there’s going to be lots of silences, where they’re thinking about what to say next. The biggest danger is that by interrupting you keep throwing people off their train of thought.”

She adds: “Sometimes the silence in the conversation might seem like five hours, or five months. But you need to practise not speaking. I have seen conversations where the listener hasn’t said a thing, then the person gets up and says ‘thanks for listening.’ You can practise on your friends and family. With teenagers for example, there’s so much information, but if you don’t develop that listening, you’ll never hear it, it’s gone.”

Sawyers trains us in the art of not only riding out the ‘awkward’ silence, but also making just the right sounds and nods, and positioning chairs in a non-threatening way. “Don’t ever act shocked,” she says. “That creates distance and you want to bring people in.”

It is this art of really listening to another person, of showing you’ve heard them and of helping them come to their own conclusions and solutions, which stays with me most powerfully from my day’s taster of this typically two-day course.

Several weeks on I haven’t had chance to try out any of the other, more mental health condition-specific, aspects of the course. But with one in six working age adults displaying symptoms of compromised mental health but with no diagnosis, at any given time, no doubt at some point I will.

What can be applied in any situation – whether talking to a friend about their day, or a colleague about a task they’re struggling with – are open, attentive listening skills. And I’m converted by Sawyers and my MHFA training, that these are something HR should be empowering anyone, sitting in any corner of the workplace, to learn. “After just one-day people actually start using the skills,” says Sawyers. “They tell me they actually made a difference.”

To find out more about MHFA and find courses near you, visit www.mhfaengland.org