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Mental health first aid can have negative impacts

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While mental health first aid (MHFA) can bring many benefits to the workplace, some firms could risk employee wellbeing if it is not implemented properly

Poorly-understood and badly-delivered MHFA programmes in the workplace could have negative consequences, according to Emily Pearson, founder of corporate mental health consultancy Our Mind's Work.

Mental health first aiders have not been given the same level of support and training as others working in safeguarding roles, she said: “These are people who are dealing with extremely sensitive, confidential and distressing information. People in occupational health roles require years of training to support someone; how are mental health first aiders supposed to do this [after] two days' [training]? Ethically and legally there could be [...] ramifications for mental health first aiders themselves, and businesses if they are found liable.”

MHFA programmes have become increasingly popular within organisations in recent years as employers seek to tackle mounting mental health pressures facing their workforces.

Such initiatives are relatively low cost, taking just two days for an employee to become a mental health first aider. Training focuses on being able to recognise and support colleagues who are facing a mental health difficulties in the workplace. More than 400,000 people across the UK are now operating as mental health first aiders.

A Mental Health First Aider is taught to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue and address. While MHFA is not designed to be a substitute for therapy or other forms of healthcare, it aims to give people the skills to listen and respond to someone who may be experiencing an issue with their mental health and potentially stop a crisis.

Research by the The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), working with researchers at the University of Nottingham found that these schemes can be effective in helping to improve and facilitate discussion around mental health. Almost all (91%) of employees in organisations with MHFA surveyed said there had been an increased understanding of mental health issues in their workplace as a result of the training, and 87% said that more mental health conversations were happening at work as a result of the training.

However, there were also concerns about some firms operating flawed MHFA programmes that lack the rigours of clearly set-out policies, procedures or the necessary training to avoid safeguarding issues.

When its research was released back in November 2018, Duncan Spencer, head of advice and practice at IOSH, stated: “Mental health first aid has become a prominent way of training individuals to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health problems and to select appropriate responses. But how successful is it in the workplace? What impact does it have?

“IOSH calls for a ‘prevention-first’ approach incorporating MHFA as part of an organisation’s overall efforts to protect its workforce from mental health problems. Appointing staff in a volunteer capacity to support colleagues with mental health problems must be part of a bigger management system including preventative controls to remove or reduce risks."

Despite the concerns, the benefits of properly-administered MHFA should not be entirely discredited, Pearson conceded. “Mental health first aid has been around for a very long time now. It started outside of the workplace, and being able to get an ordinary person to help someone in a time of crisis is a brilliant thing,” she said.

“You can be there for someone, anyone, in the street or in a supermarket, who is at a point of crisis in the same way as you would with another emergency. It’s perfect, and easily marketable, in that you can walk away and you never have to see that person again. And with mental health issues exploding in the workplace in recent years, you can see why employers would want to implement it.”

To tackle safeguarding issues with MHFA, Our Mind’s Work has put together a framework setting out best practice for employers. Several organisations have already signed up, including Northumbrian Water Group, Suffolk Water, law firm Muckle, and global automotive technology firm ZF.

Commenting on the news, Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid stressed that mental health first aiders were provided with the skills and training needed to ensure they could support people: “Our Mental Health First Aiders are part of a community of over 450,000 people in England and 2.6 million people worldwide trained to recognise mental ill health and help people find the support they need to stay well," he said.

“Keeping safe and well is a key element of being a Mental Health First Aider. Both the training and the support materials, which includes downloadable guidance on implementing Mental Health First Aiders into the workplace, toolkits, self-care tips and other content provided by MHFA England, spotlight this. Supporting and developingMental Health First Aiders in their roles is key to embedding MHFA England training into an organisation, and ensuring those trained use their skills and perform their role safely and effectively.'

Blake added that acknowledged that MHFA is only part of tackling mental health: “Importantly, we recognise that Mental Health First Aid is just one part of the solution. We encourage employers to evaluate the support they have in place before implementing MHFA England training. This ensures signposting to supports (EAPs, Occupational Health Teams, self-help information, local services) is effective and pathways to support are clear," he said.

“All organisations should have a mental health and wellbeing strategy in line with the government’s Thriving at Work recommendations. This approach should include measures for the prevention of workplace mental ill health, early intervention plans, and support – within which Mental Health First Aid is one important element.”