I’ve seen negativity about the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) programme on social media for a while. Not about the training itself but comments such as the government are putting the responsibility of wellbeing on everyone but themselves. I attended training sessions in April through my school setting and I’ve been meaning to share my experience for a while.
You need to know that I’m passionate about early help for vulnerable families and children and believe that the earlier any kind of barrier is identified, the chances of families and children being empowered to change are greater in the long term.
First of all, what is Mental Health First Aid? From the MHFA England website:
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a training course which teaches people how to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue.
MHFA won’t teach you to be a therapist – but just like physical first aid, it will teach you to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis – and even potentially stop a crisis from happening.
You’ll learn to recognise warning signs of mental ill health, and develop the skills and confidence to approach and support someone while keeping yourself safe.
You’ll also learn how to empower someone to access the support they might need for recovery or successful management of symptoms. This could include self-help books or websites, accessing therapy services through their GP, their school or place of work, online self-referral, support groups, and more.
What’s more, you’ll gain an understanding of how to support positive wellbeing and tackle stigma in the world around you.
And their mission:
Our goal is to train one in ten people in vital Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) skills, because we all have mental health. We want to empower people through education to care for themselves and others.
My experience of mental health in my job role and personal life
Parents come to talk to myself and my team after visiting their GP with concerns about the anxiety and mental wellbeing of their children because their GP has signposted them to us for support. We’re having to become more and more skilled in what we are able to provide to support our children for their social, mental and emotional health.
A couple of years ago, a child was experiencing psychotic episodes. I had no experience before this, had no idea how to communicate/what was the right or the wrong thing to say or do. Whilst we were waiting for the mental health team to become involved we could have made so many mistakes. Had I done the MHFA training before this, I would have been confident in my approach, knowing that what I was doing was the right thing and confident I was not causing further harm.
I’ve had therapy myself (back when your GP had to refer you) and both times it was a wait of weeks and weeks. Over the past couple of years I’ve had personal experience through a close family member of the help and support that is available for someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. I’ve undertaken cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness training so that I am able to be that person’s support.
We know there is a problem with the services that are available due to underfunding and cuts in budgets. Instead of being negative and stamping feet about what we don’t have I think we should be proactive and look at what we can do to care for ourselves and for others. It takes a lot of energy to be negative, imagine how powerful it would be to turn that negativity around to be focused on something that could make an impact.
From an early help perspective (not just in my job role), being informed, being able to notice when things change, the language to use, the questions to ask and what is available may be all that’s needed to make a difference. And in my experience, that’s exactly what you take away from the MHFA training.
I want to make it very clear that the training does not teach you to be a therapist. At several points during the training I attended we were skilfully brought back to the fact that this was first aid, we’re not trained professional therapists (it’s easy to get carried away!) and not expected to have the strategies/answers.
Different media was used to present the MHFA training at a level everyone could understand. Videos (Dr Andrew Curran’s brain development was outstanding), slideshows, paired work/group work, individual tasks, homework and case studies (including making up our own families for other groups to work with) gave us not only knowledge, insights and resources that are available but also gave us time to network and share good practice (although this was through my school setting, employees from all different types of settings attended the same sessions). We were given the five basic steps which we used throughout and banks of useful questions. We were also challenged to think outside of the box. We learnt the use of positive language and also HOW TO CHALLENGE the language we heard others using. We also received a reference type manual which I’ve found invaluable. All very useful whether you’re a parent, in a professional role, a colleague or a friend.
To put the MHFA training into perspective. All public buildings have fire wardens/marshals. I’m a fire marshal in my school setting. I receive regular (sometimes intense) training which enables me to be responsible for my designated area of the school building. I’ve been given the knowledge of how to keep others and myself safe in case of a fire, including using fire extinguishers. Does that make me a fire(wo)man? Does that take the responsibility away from the fire service? Or is it first level support?
Mental Health First Aid isn’t about taking responsibility for everyone’s wellbeing. It’s about empowering yourself and others. It’s about having the confidence and knowledge to do things right. It’s about having the tools to make a difference in our personal and professional lives.