Mental Health First Aiders: What are they and why we need them

mental health first aiders

Mental Health First Aiders. Have you heard the term before? Do you know of any? Does your workplace have them? I’d like to think the answer is yes to all three of those questions. That’s because Mental Health First Aiders are crucial to every work environment and should be an integral part of every organisation’s employee wellbeing strategy. 

If it’s a new concept to you, think about a First Aider in the physical body sense. Imagine you’ve injured yourself in the workplace, such as tripping and cutting your leg, or burning your hand when making a cup of tea. A First Aider would support you there and then. A Mental Health First Aider’s role isn’t too dissimilar, as they provide support for someone in the moment of need. Rather than help with someone’s physical wellbeing, their role is to support an individual who is experiencing a mental health issue or crisis. And like First Aiders, Mental Health First Aiders are employees who volunteer for the role.

Most critically, the role of a Mental Health First Aider isn’t to diagnose or treat people, but to be there to listen and signpost to the most appropriate support and resources, which could be an employee assistance programme, toolkits on a charity’s website, or suggesting they go speak to their GP. Their role isn’t to support their fellow colleagues in the way a trained therapist or counsellor would provide treatment.

They do, however, understand the important factors that affect mental health and can identify the signs and symptoms of different mental health conditions. And to do this, Mental Health First Aiders use the ALGEE approach:

A is for approaching, assessing and assisting with any crisis

L is for listening and communicating without judgement

G is for giving support and information

E is to encourage the person to get the appropriate professional help

E again is to encourage the use of other support tools

In an article published in 2019, The Guardian suggested around half a million people in Great Britain have been through a Mental Health First Aid programme, which equates to one for every 100 people in an organisation.  

This figure isn’t dissimilar to what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends for low-hazard organisations (office environments for example), for the traditional kind of First Aider, with one for the first 50 employees of an organisation, and a further one for every 100 more employees.

In reality, can we honestly suggest that organisations have the same number of Mental Health First Aiders, as they do First Aiders? Particularly when one type of first aider is required by law, the other isn’t. It’s been 40 years since the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations of 1981 came into Act, which ensures “organisations provide adequate and appropriate first-aid equipment, facilities and people so employees can be given immediate help if they are injured or taken ill at work.”

It’s not a legal requirement to have Mental Health First Aiders in every organisation. Yet. Watford MP Dean Russell introduced a new Bill to Parliament in March 2021, with a mission of doing just that; to make Mental Health First Aid training a legal requirement for workplaces in England.

“The proposal to have a Mental Health First Aider in every workplace is not unrealistic,” Mr Russell said as he addressed the Commons back in March. He continued, “just imagine what impact that would have. And the people we could help before they require more urgent support. It would mean that First Aiders in every workplace would not just be able to save lives through CPR, but perhaps change lives by asking people how they are.”

But perhaps having at least one trained Mental Health First Aider in an organisation is unrealistic, particularly if many don’t understand the role nor what value and impact Mental Health First Aid can have in an organisation.

So why do need them?

We all have mental health like we have physical health, yet there is still so much stigma attached to people being open and talking about how they are, whether it’s factors at home or workplace challenges that are affecting them.

Mind.org reported that one in four people experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, with one in six people experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week. These findings are from surveys undertaken in 2009 and 2014 respectively and no doubt these numbers have increased over the years. Particularly as it feels like – to me anyway – that the pandemic has resulted in more people openly talking about their mental health like never before. 

It’s a new era for mental health at work, according to Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas in the Harvard Business Review. And I’d be inclined to agree with them. They write, “In 2020, mental health support went from a nice-to-have to a true business imperative. Fast forward to 2021, and the stakes have been raised even higher thanks to a greater awareness of the workplace factors that can contribute to poor mental health, as well as heightened urgency around its intersections with DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).”

Greenwood and Anas focus on workplace scenarios that impact mental health, but the mental health support available in the workplace must be holistic in its approach to support every aspect of one’s life that may contribute to their mental wellbeing. 

This is exactly why sometimes all you need is a friendly face, who may already know your backstory, or understand the challenges faced at work, to reach out and to talk to. And whilst Mental Health First Aiders are there to listen, and not judge, that immediate support in a crisis can be the first line of defence for an organisation in supporting their workplace.

Furthermore, Mental Health First Aiders help normalise the conversation surrounding mental wellbeing at work, purely through their presence alone. Ultimately, if the stigma is ever going to end surrounding mental health, it must have the same level of importance as physical health. One step towards that is making Mental Health First Aiders a legal requirement in the workplace. Until that day, organisations have to shoulder that responsibility.

And what’s in it for them? Why should organisations invest in Mental Health First Aiders? In 2016, NHS England reported that mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK, with the cost to the economy estimated at around £105 billion a year. Issues with mental health, as with physical health, can impact an individual’s productivity and ability to work. One study even found that depression can have a greater negative impact on time management and productivity than any other health problem.

Mental health can result in both short- and long-term absenteeism, or worse, presenteeism. Of course, many factors can influence this, and Mental Health First Aiders can’t solve all workplace wellbeing issues and absences. Through a structured and supportive wellbeing programme, that includes the role of Mental Health First Aiders, it’s projected that UK businesses could save up to £8 billion per year.

Along with a more productive workforce, let’s face it, it’s just the right thing to do.

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