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The varied role of a Mental Health First Aider

Published 08/09/2021 by James Turner 5 min read

When HIE first mentioned they were looking to train some staff to become Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA), I jumped at the opportunity! I was delighted to be picked and successfully completed my training in early December 2020.

My interest in becoming a Mental Health First Aider came from a few sources. I’ve always liked to help people, so that was a strong driver and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, I had wanted to try to do more to ensure that I could help ‘make things better’.

Alongside that, I have personal experience of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem as a result of difficult circumstances in my own life. I have also had close family members experience addiction, depression, and suicidal thoughts both during my childhood and more recently in my adult life.

This has instilled a strong desire to ‘use’ or ‘channel’ these experiences to help others and to normalise talking about mental health so that more people feel comfortable getting support when they need it.  

Prior to training to be an MHFA I undertook training in Suicide Prevention as part of the Highland Suicide Intervention and Prevention Programme (SIPP). There’s quite a lot of overlap in the training though SIPP is more focused on supporting someone who is at acute risk of suicide. I’m still a part of the Highland SIPP, and over the last year we’ve adapted the courses for delivery online as demand for them has remained high despite not being able to meet physically.

The role of a Mental Health First Aider is varied – being available and prepared to listen to what people are (and are not) saying and if needs be to offer choices for where they can find support or ways that they might be able to improve circumstances and make positive changes. It’s not about ‘doing to’ someone, it’s about listening and empowering.

It’s important to be able to maintain confidentiality and the only reason we would share anything that we were told in confidence would be if we genuinely believed that someone was in danger of harm, or of harming others.

Another key element of being a MHFA is self-care. Just as you should put your own oxygen mask on before you try and help someone else on a plane, you must look after yourself so you can support others. We get together regularly to check-in with one another and make sure everyone is ok.

There’s a strong element of advocacy involved too. As MHFAs we’re seeking ways to ‘normalise’ talking about mental health because we can make things better for everyone by challenging and breaking down the stigma around mental health.

Just as with our physical health, our mental wellbeing needs to be looked after. In fact, mental and physical health are intrinsically linked, and one can often affect the other.

Anyone can experience poor mental health at any time so having MHFAs means that people can be supported at work. We have first aiders just in case we are injured or ill at work and MHFAs operate in a similar capacity but provide support for things that are much less visible but can be just as debilitating as a physical injury.

MHFAs can help encourage people to access support if they’re experiencing poor mental health or wellbeing – just as you’d get help if you had badly cut yourself or broken a bone. It’s my hope that the longer we have MHFAs, the more comfortable people will feel getting help with their mental health.

The pandemic has highlighted how important it is to look after our mental health and wellbeing, not just with working from home but even as restrictions ease.

Humans are a pretty social species and although the world wasn’t perfect ‘before lockdown’, many have found that the isolation and uncertainty have increased or exacerbated feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression, especially as the things people might have done to relieve those feelings were not possible.

Being able to meet digitally helped in some ways of course, but a video call isn’t the same as being in the same place as someone whether it’s a colleague, client, friend or relative and I think that really started to take its toll too. For some, even digital connection with people wasn’t possible.

Having little or no separation between work and home has a big impact too. The commute allowed space to change mental gears before and after leaving work. Meeting digitally makes it far too easy to find yourself in back-to-back calls, which just wouldn’t have happened previously.

With the world beginning to open back up again now, some things are getting easier but there’s still a lot of uncertainty and anxiety which can create frustration and distress. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet in terms of the impact upon mental health. However, it’s great to know that for me and my HIE colleagues, there’s a group of Mental Health First Aiders only a phone call away to provide a listening ear and support when needed. I hope other organisations will consider doing the same.

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