A couple of weeks ago I completed a mental health first aid course with MHFA, and while it was a bit of a struggle for me emotionally, I did it, which is a big step considering how my counselling course ended.
The fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed everything on-line has helped me to get back into learning, simply because I can do it from the safety of home.
In the case of the MHFA course, it also meant that I had a wider choice of trainers, and I definitely struck gold when I found Louise Larkum, but I’ll tell you a bit more about Louise in a moment.
Firstly, about the course itself.
It was originally created in 2000, in Canberra, Australia, by Betty Kitchener, an educator and mental health consumer, and in partnership with Professor Tony Jorm, a mental health researcher. In 2003 it was adopted by the Scottish government, and then by England in 2006; since then it has spread around the world.
The course is not designed to make people mental health professionals, it is there to help educate about the diverse nature of mental illnesses, to prepare people in being able to spot the early signs of possible mental health issues in others, to encourage people to talk about mental health problems, and finally to encourage them to find help and support.
The basic steps of mental health first aid that MHFA uses has the least sexy mnemonic that I has seen; it’s ALGEE! Hey, if it helps people, who cares about sexy?
A – Approach the person, assess and assist with any crisis.
L – Listen and communicate non-judgementally.
G – Give support and information.
E – Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help.
E – Encourage other support.
A quick word of caution; the above sounds pretty straight forward, and there are some aspects of ALGEE that anyone can practice, however mental illness needs to be handled carefully because there are so many pitfalls that you could fall into by just ‘trying to help’.
It’s similar to physical first aid in the fact that the first aider is there to give initial help, but most importantly be aware of the does and don’ts; for example, knowing when and if it is safe to move someone who is injured.
Likewise, with mental illness, it’s knowing how to give the appropriate help, to assess if there is a crisis situation, or something less serious that still needs attention.
Just using the wrong words can cause more damage and inflame a situation, even if you are trying to help. Phrases like ‘Pull yourself together’ can be really destructive for someone with a mental illness; while it can sound motivating to most people, it can have a very different meaning to someone who is wrapped in fear and self-doubt.
As more people experience poor mental health, it is vital that there are people out there who are trained to spot the early signs and offer help. As I was going through the course I couldn’t help thinking that everyone should learn this stuff.
Mental illness covers so many disorders, and it is important for people to understand more about them. Not only does it help the individual who is struggling, but it helps reduce the stigma around mental illness.
While I consider myself a bit of an expert on anxiety and depression because of my own lived experience, the course helped me, because it reminded me that everyone’s experience is different, and there are mental disorders I really didn’t know anything about, such as eating disorders and psychosis.
I think all companies should have this training, for all levels of employees; while managers need to be able to spot the signs that someone is struggling, they can’t be expected to do it alone, colleagues also need to look out for each other.
A big part of the training is about spotting what’s not normal or routine behaviour for someone. A person can be naturally skinny, so it doesn’t mean they have an eating disorder, however if they start to talk differently about food, suddenly change eating habits, or become withdrawn then there may be a sign of a potential issue. Close colleagues and friends are best placed to be able to spot these changes, and even initiate the ALGEE process.
I am 100% certain that if my old company had had this sort of training then my journey would have been very different.
As I mentioned, the training would also go a long way to reducing the stigma of mental illness. The reason people don’t talk about mental health is because they feel ashamed, and they probably feel others will judge them. I remember one of my managers describing me as ‘weaker’ than others in the office because of my anxiety; I can’t begin to tell you how bad this made me feel.
It should also be taught in schools as part of the curriculum, again, as a general educational tool, but also to help children. A survey carried out in 2017 by NHS Digital showed that 1 in 9 children aged between 5 – 15 had a mental health disorder (either emotional, behavioural, hyperactive or other); when they included older children and young people aged between 5 – 19 the figures went up to 1 in 8 (information taken from Mental Health Foundation website, 2018).
When you think about it (and it was highlighted in the course) we teach our children to speak and write, but we don’t teach listening! It’s basic, important, and so obvious, but we just don’t do it and it is a key component in assisting others.
I just can’t stress how important this knowledge and information is for everyone to learn.
Back to my journey on the course, and my trainer Louise, because she deserves celebrating. Like most training, the content is only part of the experience. I can only imagine that it is a much harder job training on-line, especially on subjects as sensitive and emotion provoking as mental health.
The good news is that Louise made me feel safe from the beginning; she made me aware that the course would bring up difficult emotions and she urged me to make sure I had support (this may be standard for all the MHFA trainers, either way it showed great awareness, and it meant that I was prepared).
I had a couple of wobbles during the course, however I always felt that I could approach Louise (which I need to at one point), and step back when I had to, without judgement. I could just listen and observe when I felt overwhelmed. It’s because of this approach that I found that as the sessions progressed I felt more comfortable, and I could get more involved.
She also made the training enjoyable. Let’s face it, mental illness is hardly the most lighthearted of topics to teach or learn, but Louise was able to inject some light between the seriousness of the messages she was teaching.
I think by now you get the idea that I am a fan of mental health first aid training!
Here’s the link to the MHFA England website and a second link to MHFA International which lists the programs available around the world.
I would encourage as many of you as possible to take the course, share the details with your friends and colleagues; take it to your managers and ask if your company will pay for you to take the course. Maybe you can get a number of people in your company involved and create a mental health wellbeing team?
The only thing I will get out of it is the peace of mind that more people will be educated and made aware of mental illness disorders, and hope that at some point no one will have to suffer in silence, and everyone will be able to get the help they need and deserve.
Thank you, thank you, thank you