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What is a Mental Health First Aider?

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Looking after our mental health is as important as looking after our physical health. Now a leading cause of sickness absence, with an estimated 70 million workdays lost to mental health problems each year in the UK, workplaces are increasingly waking up to the fact that their employees might be struggling to cope.

We expect to have a first aider on hand at work, in schools, colleges, universities and community events. A first aider is trained to deal with minor ailments, accidents and injuries as well as to offer informed help and advice. As we have trained first aiders widely available for physical problems, there is a benefit to having a trained first aider around to help people with their mental or emotional wellbeing also.

The Mental Health Foundation recently commissioned a survey of over 2,000 workers which revealed that 38% of workers would be too worried to talk openly about a mental health issue in case it caused problems for their job or future prospects. 17% of respondents also reported concerns about being judged negatively by their colleagues.

Despite an increased awareness across society, with many high profile, public figures speaking out about their own struggles, campaigns across social media and 10th October being dedicated as World Mental Health Day, it seems there is still significant work to be done within the workplace. The mental health of young people is also reported to be at an all-time low.

One of the vital building blocks to improving workplace mental health is for workers to know they can have open and honest conversations about their mental health and wellbeing with someone who understands. More and more businesses are opting to appoint a dedicated mental health first aider for this reason.

Mental Health First Aider Undergoing Training

There are many thousands of mental health first aiders in the UK, with approximately 4 million worldwide.

Mental health first aiders undergo training to become an established port of call within their community. You might find them within the workplace or in schools or universities. They are there to discuss mental health and empower individuals to address issues they may be experiencing.

Having some level of mental health awareness is vital in the modern world of work. It is important to understand risk factors that exist within mental health, the attitudes of society (and how they should be challenged) and the agencies that exist where you can seek help or advice.

Being a mental health first aider is not about becoming an expert, it is about being an advocate.

The skillset of a mental health first aider stretches beyond the workplace or educational institution – once you have undertaken your training you will be able to use your transferable skills to support friends, a relative or neighbour, as well as having a deeper understanding of how to care for your own mental wellbeing.

What are the responsibilities?

A mental health first aider is not the same as a psychiatrist, therapist or counsellor. Successful completion of a Mental Health First Aid course, should allow a candidate to:

  • Recognise the warning signs of mental ill health.
  • Keep themselves safe (mentally and physically).
  • Signpost colleagues to appropriate places for support (GP, online websites, self-help literature, therapy, support groups etc).
  • Encourage positivity and wellbeing in the workplace.
  • Actively work towards reducing stigma around mental health.
  • Provide a receptive ear, listening without judging, plus offering support (with the help of the Mental Health First Aid action plan).

The MHFA courses are designed to empower successful candidates to become a point of contact for those experiencing mental health issues or emotional distress. The role of a mental health first aider is not that of a diagnostician or someone that is there to provide long-term support.

Mental health first aiders are there to have a positive influence on their workplace (or wider community).

It is important that those who choose to undertake this role do so in a responsible way:

  • Mental health first aiders need to prioritise their own mental wellbeing and only perform the role when they feel it is appropriate.
  • They should communicate workplace concerns to the relevant place (supervisor, line manager etc).
  • They will refer to specific workplace procedures around mental health first aid and respect them.
  • It is important to find a balance between this role and other workplace responsibilities (i.e. not neglecting other duties).
  • Clear boundaries between first aiders and colleagues/people that are receiving support should be implemented, so all parties feel safe and comfortable.
  • Refresher training should be taken every three years.

You will be taught how to use the five-step action plan designed by the MHFA, known by the acronym ALGEE.

What are the benefits of having a mental health first aider in the workplace?

Work takes up a large portion of the lives of most adults, with many of us working long hours in high pressured and stressful situations. Research of over 5,200 adults conducted in 2020 suggested that regular money worries affect almost half of the adult population (48%), with 9 million adults worrying about it daily. The workplace can act as a catalyst for stress and burnout: it is therefore a key setting in which to address mental health.

By deciding to offer a dedicated mental health first aider to their workforce, bosses are showing that they take mental health seriously and that they care about the wellbeing of their workforce.

Happy and healthy staff are going to be more productive than unhappy, stressed or struggling staff, so although the issue of workplace mental health should not be a financial one, there are certainly economic benefits to offering mental health support.

Other important benefits to promoting mental health in the workplace and having a mental health first aider on hand are:

  • Increasing awareness about mental health and reducing stigma.
  • Promoting early intervention/recognising warning signs which may encourage early recovery and increased resilience.
  • Nurturing a healthy and positive environment for the workforce.
Showing A Mental Health First Aider

How to promote mental health in the workplace

The MHFA website has some helpful resources including printable PDFs that you can share or display around the workplace.

They offer useful prompts to help workers think about how they are feeling and taking care of themselves, such as:

  • How do I feel today, mentally and physically?
  • Am I drinking enough water and eating well?
  • How did I sleep last night?
  • Am I having unhelpful thoughts?

It is beneficial to have regular check-ins with staff and send them emails to remind them of the mental health services that are on offer. There are so many ways to reach staff in the modern world, including on the weekly newsletter or office bulletin, social media groups, chats, text, email, intranet, as well as using traditional paper methods.

By nurturing a culture within the workplace where mental health matters and staff can talk openly about how they feel, you are working to reduce stigma around mental and emotional wellbeing.

Signposting staff to useful resources or places they can go to for support and intervention can give them the power to address their mental health problems and build confidence.

Rather than being there to ‘fix’ the nation’s mental health problems, effective mental health first aiders should be able to:

  • Identify.
  • Support.
  • Signpost.

This approach can be instrumental in giving workers the tools to seek out early intervention and achieve recovery or manage their condition in a way that works for them.

Central to being a mental health first aider is the ability to understand and empower others at the same time as being self-aware.

Mental health first aiders are in a unique position to lead by example. Although mental health problems can strike anyone at any time, there are certain risk factors that will affect our mental wellbeing such as consistent lack of sleep, excessive pressure/unrealistic expectations, drugs and alcohol.

These appointed mental health advocates are able to promote the idea that self-care is not selfish and self-help is usually more effective and less harmful than self-medication.

Many businesses are beginning to understand mental health as a workplace asset. It is important to take a holistic approach to mental health matters at work. As a first aider, this is your responsibility but it is not solely your responsibility. An effective mental health programme in the workplace will usually be supported from the top down.

People need to know:

  • They can talk about mental health without fear of reprisal/discrimination.
  • That senior management and leaders within the company have a commitment to supporting mental health in the workplace, further than simply on paper.
  • What the mental health policy is within their workplace, how to access it and how it is being applied.
  • Where to go for support (i.e. who their mental health first aider is and how to contact them).
  • How their information will be treated and if their disclosures are in confidence.

As a mental health first aider, it is important to be able to lead in an intuitive way. What works for one individual may not work for another. Some people may find the most benefit from a focus group style approach, whereas others will need a more private chat.

Workers tend to normalise the way they are feeling, with stress and burnout often being accepted as ‘part of the job’ and sometimes even celebrated as they can be conflated with hard work and success. A trained mental health first aider, although not a therapist, can assist with breaking these kinds of unhealthy patterns of behaviour that can become engrained within workforces. Working hard is not the same as being overworked.

Other small changes that can complement the mental health action plan and help to promote wellbeing in the workplace might look like:

  • Bringing the outside inside – Getting out in nature boosts mood and having indoor plants around is thought to do the same; they are also thought to improve productivity, particularly in office spaces. You could encourage people to look after and water the plants as well.
  • Taking a break – Time away from your desk or workspace is vital. Consistently working through lunch and eating whilst staring at a screen or sitting by a phone is unhealthy and it is important that staff have healthy boundaries around when they are allowed to ‘switch off’. As a mental health first aider these are some of the signs of stress and overwork you might look out for.
  • Burnout does not equal success – Let’s not normalise overwhelm in the workplace, schools or within the community.
  • Self-care is not optional, it is vital – Sport, yoga, meditation, mindfulness are fun and enjoyable ways to boost endorphins and reduces stress. Getting out for a walk in the fresh air is also great for mental health. You can share tips, ideas and even times of classes or events via the intranet, social media, email or even the shared noticeboard at work.
  • Rest is allowed – It is okay to stop and take downtime outside of work or school. The ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude perpetuated in films and the media that is often associated with the excess of corporate sector success in the 1980s and 1990s, is not always conducive to mental wellbeing. This is an association that needs to be broken. Not everyone has the stamina to work long days and spend long evenings socialising – we all need time for family life, sleep and to recharge.

How do I become a mental health first aider?

You can train to become a mental health first aider with an MHFA course. These are currently being offered both online and in person. They are very popular and do get booked up quickly.

MHFA England offer the following courses:

There is also a MHFA Refresher course for those with prior training who wish to refresh their skillset, which is recommended every three years so mental health first aiders can keep up with best practice.

Although MHFA is open to everyone with a willingness to learn, some people might possess an inherent flair that makes them more suited to this kind of role. Particular attributes a successful mental health first aider will possess include being a good listener and having empathy for others as well as being open minded and non-judgemental.

The willingness to speak openly about mental health with others is clearly also a requirement, but most people will find that they become more comfortable with this aspect as they progress through the course itself.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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