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Why you need more than ‘mental health first aid’ provision in your business.



Allow me to start by saying that any positive step to tackling the mental health (MH) challenge is to be commended. There are hundreds of thousands of businesses who still have their head in the sand when it comes to this prevalent issue. With so many providers of services from beanbags and psychotherapeutic treatments to fruit bowls and counselling, the choice of vendors providing MH cures, treatments and combatant therapies is enormous. One that seems to have the biggest momentum by far is ‘mental health first aid (MHFA)’, but what is it? How does it work? Does it treat MH problems? A couple of points....



What is it?


MHFA is essentially an awareness and signposting proposition. Each course might be a little different but the premise is the same. They are excellent at raising the awareness of first aiders to identify and intervene when they experience or witness poor MH conditions in others. They enable people to approach conversations with care and sensitivity and ultimately aim to encourage sufferers to seek professional help.



How does it work?


Each provider offers a variation on the theme but the commonality between them is providing the 'first aiders' with examples and information that helps them identify behaviours and mannerism in people that may be the result of some poor MH. The course I undertook (MHFA England) was excellent at introducing the topic and gave the participants an ability to spot these traits and behaviours and provided some tools to approach the subject with empathy and sensitivity. It was spread over two days and consisted of many different lived and theoretical examples from depression to schizophrenia. There was plenty of group discussion and participation and the ‘ALGEE’ mantra was drilled into us all. We went away with our booklets and paperwork and were the latest batch of MHFAiders, ready to unleash our new-found empathy into workplaces and society wherever it was needed.



Does it treat MH conditions?


It doesn't.


Part way through the course, having discussed the suicide rate in the UK being around 3x that of road traffic accident deaths, I couldn’t contain my pessimism. The reality was that those sitting around the table were all empathetic; Some had a lived experience of poor MH; others were hoping to provide additional strings to their HR bow. Others however were heavily encouraged to attend on behalf of the company. One person in particular was there to be trained as the token MHFA person in a team of 90 staff. This same person shared with us the appalling culture and bullying that takes place at their place. I made the point of asking why was it that no business owner or leader was sitting on the course? There were a few bemused faces a few mute answers, but no real answer. Where were they?


MHFA does not treat complex MH problems or conditions. It does not mean people will talk openly about it in your workplace. Having MHFA is does not mean anybody suffering problems will automatically go to a colleague they may or may not know – many won't even go to their own Doctor.


MHFA does not prevent the poor behaviour of managers; prevent toxic cultures; stop overtime or stressful working conditions. The list goes on and on. Most worrying of them all, MHFA is being deployed as a one hit solution and the underlying problems will not being going away. We should not be trying to just administer aid, we should be doing all we can to prevent problems.


A report commissioned by the HSE showed little evidence on the impacts of MHFA uptake in businesses. It doesn’t mean it’s all bad news, but it does show that on its own, it isn’t enough. We need to look at root causes. Preventative measures will reduce the number of work-related instances of poor MH, combining it with MHFA (in a culture open, willing and able to deploy it successfully) will be a positive and lasting remedy that should see many common problems dealt with in a manner that is fitting for both the business and the individual.


If businesses are serious about tackling this challenge, they need to lead it from the front (as they would any other business initiative – managers and senior staff are all too keen to hop into the limelight when it’s M&A, posting huge profits or some other money making scheme), but how many are getting to truly understand this challenge? The fact is, with an ROI of 4:1, done properly, tackling this challenges has no end of positive outcomes for the individuals and business.


I don’t want to discourage MHFA, (after all, we offer it as a service), but I do want to encourage people to consider how the culture and leadership within teams, departments, businesses is the very thing we need to look at first. Prevention has to be the starting point.