A case for increased mental health awareness in first aid training


According to NHS data, one  in four adults experience mental illness at any given time in their life. Mental health issues such as stress, depression and anxiety are also the prime cause of days off work – accounting for almost 18 million or 51% of days lost in Great Britain in 2019/20, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

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Workplace stress can be overwhelming.

MPs are now looking to introduce a law which, if successful, would make mental health first-aid part of first-aid training requirements in workplaces as well as in the wider society – a move which could help individuals and reduce the amount of work days lost as a result of mental health issues.

Increasingly employers are becoming aware of the need to understand and support staff with mental health problems. Employers and colleagues would play an important part in spotting symptoms of poor mental health, offering a listening ear, and signposting people for professional help.

As the Conservative MP, Dean Russell said in his presentation of the Bill to Parliament: “Just as physical first-aiders are not expected to be trained doctors or paramedics, mental health first-aiders are not expected to be counsellors or full-time psychotherapists. The training simply provides the skills for the first-aider to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue.”

The idea of mental health first-aiders is gathering pace as the Health and Safety Executive has included the need for mental health first-aid in its official guidelines. Many big businesses are already on board with the idea of mental health first-aiders including Thames Water, American Express and PricewaterhouseCooper.

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The idea of mental health first-aid in the workplace was developed by Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm in the early 2000’s in Australia. In the last twenty years, other countries have embraced the idea including Canada, Japan, the United States, India and many countries across Europe. It is thought over 3 million people across the world are now qualified to give mental health first-aid within their workplace.

Mental health first-aid training started in the UK when it was developed initially by the National Institute for Mental Health in England – part of the Department of Health.

Mental health first-aid training teaches people the basics of how to help another person developing, or currently struggling with, a mental health problem (including addiction), experiencing a worsening of a condition or, generally, in crisis. The  mental health first-aider will offer a listening ear and suggest the colleague gets support and help from a professional.

After a year of social distancing and more people working from home than ever before, the need for such interventions has never been greater. Many people have experienced isolation and loneliness. Some are concerned about going back into the workplace – and experiencing social anxiety. Mental health first-aid not only helps individuals, but businesses benefit too with less days taken off work and a more productive work force. Those who train in mental health first-aid also gain enhanced interpersonal skills such as non-judgemental listening.

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People can feel more alone when working from home – hiding their mental health problems from colleagues.

What is good mental health?

Good mental health differs from person to person as everybody has their own ideas of what it means to them, however, it can be summed up by four sets of criteria. First, the person is able to feel, express and manage different emotions both positive and negative. Secondly, they are better able to manage situations; to share stress and anxiety.

Thirdly, they are open to learning new skills and having new experiences. And lastly, people with good mental health feel able to cope with change and any uncertainty. Mental health is a common problem. A person may experience different levels of good and poor mental health at different times. Mental health can impact thinking, feelings and/or behaviour.

Signs and symptoms of poor mental health

It’s important to be aware of the common signs of poor mental health. Only then are you able to start working on improving things. Common symptoms include a lasting, and overwhelming sadness or irritability, feelings of fear and anxiety, withdrawing from social situations, difficulties with sleeping and sustained changes in eating habits.

Tools to help improve your mental wellbeing

But there are also several simple ways to improve our mental health. These kinds of actions can be easily taught to staff through mental health first aid training. They include getting regular, good quality sleep each night. It also helps to get regular exercise, which is known to be good for managing and combating stress and increasing feel-good hormones (endorphins) in the brain.

It’s important to take the time to talk about feelings, particularly when things are tough or difficult to manage.  Make more time for family and friends – also known as ‘me’ time. Accept what you can and cannot change or have control of and limit the use of alcohol and drugs. It is important to remember that poor mental health is a common problem, but help is always available.


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