Learning how to perform CPR, stem bleeding, or create an arm sling are basic skills learnt in a first aid course.
- Mental health first aid are skills to help manage a person’s mental health problem or crisis
- Courses teach people about how to communicate non-judgementally and engage a person in a supportive conversation
- About one million Australians have undertaken a mental health first aid course
But just as physical first aid skills are highly useful and in many workplaces, even mandatory, having the skills to recognise and address mental health issues in others are just as valuable.
In any one year, around one in five people aged from 16 to 85 will experience a mental health disorder.
Mental health first aid (MHFA) refers to the help given to a person who is developing a mental health problem, experiencing an existing mental health problem, or who is in a mental health crisis such as having thoughts of suicide.
It involves recognising symptoms and providing support until a professional can be involved.
The first MHFA training course was developed in Australia 20 years ago.
There are more than 2,300 instructors around the country and about a million Australians have been trained by Mental Health First Aid Australia — the national not-for-profit organisation that accredits trainers and develops programs.
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Claire Kelly, director of research and curriculum at MHFA, says “there’s no downside” to taking a course.
“We teach people skills about how to listen, how to communicate non-judgementally, how to get engaged in a conversation that is supportive and that makes it possible for the person to open up,” Dr Kelly said.
“How to do what you can to improve their personal safety such as if they are having thoughts of suicide.
“It’s really just skills for conversations that I think people want to have but don’t have, because they’re concerned that they’re going to make things worse or that it’s going to create an obligation that they’re going to be uncomfortable fulfilling.”
Callers to ABC Radio Sydney agreed.
“It helped me enormously. I could pick up the symptoms that you learn on the course, that was happening in me and in my body and I could actually communicate that confidentiality, having done the course.” — Gloria
“I did mental health first aid about 10 years ago. I was involved in a government rural sector and it was in the middle of a roaring drought. It was very useful and appreciated.” — ABC Radio Sydney caller
Start the conversation
The key objective of MHFA is to arm you with the skills to help a friend, family member, or colleague who is experiencing a mental health crisis.
ABC Radio Sydney caller Marcia, says she completed an MHFA course three months ago.
“I grew up thinking you shouldn’t mention the word suicide and not to talk to people using that vocab,” she said.
“I just thought it was so beneficial to do because it’s not just about saying ‘Are you OK?’, but it teaches you to follow up.
“Like: ‘Let’s touch base next week, let’s put a plan in place.'”
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One of the key first aid skills is to recognise the signs of a mental health disorder.
In the workplace, some physical signs include a co-worker who seems tired all the time, sick, and rundown and has reduced reaction times.
They might behave erratically or appear withdrawn, be indecisive, or complain about lack of management support.
“The most important thing is to be non-judgemental and be kind and to reach out and start the conversation,” Dr Kelly said.
“It’s much more important to be genuinely caring than to say the right thing.
“Recognise that there is only so much you can do, and the focus needs to be on helping the person figure out who the right professional is to talk to.”
If you or anyone you know needs help:
When approaching the person, maintain their confidentiality and privacy, create a supportive and trusting environment when discussing mental health problems, ask open-ended questions, and express your concerns in a non-confrontational and clear manner.
You could encourage the person to talk to an appropriate manager if the issue is about workplace stressors, or offer to assist them to find appropriate information or professional support.
And if after the conversation you feel distressed, you should find someone to talk to for support and advice while respecting the privacy of your friend or co-worker.
“I did the course as part of being an HR manager at a construction company. It gave me really good background to talk to people.” — Karen
Start training in young people
Ziyad Serhan, a former teacher and co-founder of EducAID, works with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to create awareness about mental health.
He also runs MHFA courses in schools and says “early intervention is critical”.
“What that means is young people are in a position to be an accidental counsellor.”
He reflected on a course he taught at Bankstown Girls High School recently.
“[The students said to me] ‘Our parents don’t understand this’,” he said.
“Talking about suicide and self-harm with teenagers was huge.”
Mr Serhan said a misperception that came up was that people did it for attention seeking.
“Explaining it comprehensively in a way they can connect with was really important.”
Mr Serhan says MHFA gives a framework to intervene confidently and empathetically when helping someone.