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21 Sep 2023
by Tim Heard

5 points to consider when creating an mental health first aid network

In an era of increased awareness and understanding of mental health issues, mental health first aid has emerged as a powerful and invaluable tool

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One of the most profound effects of mental health first aid (MHFA) is its ability to raise awareness about mental health issues. By educating colleagues about common mental health disorders, the signs, and symptoms, MHFA breaks down the barriers of stigma and discrimination.

Its effectiveness lies not only in the knowledge and skills it imparts but in the cultural shift it fosters — a shift toward a more empathetic, understanding, and supportive society.

As MHFA continues to gain recognition and adoption, it highlights our collective commitment to mental wellbeing and our capacity to make a positive difference in the lives of those who need it most.

There is, however, still a risk that by simply implementing Mental Health First Aiders without the appropriate measures, support, and guidance, it becomes an organisational ‘tick-box’ exercise.

A recent Cochrane review examined the effectiveness of MHFA on the mental health and wellbeing of individuals and communities where MHFA training had been provided. The researchers were unable to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of MHFA due to the lack of good quality evidence.

While MHFA is undoubtedly well-intentioned and has demonstrated benefits, it is important to critically examine the programme's effectiveness, so it has real value in improving the mental health of those it serves.

If you are considering implementing MHFA training within your organisation, there are 5 points to consider to consider:

1. Combine MHFA with a wider wellbeing strategy

Mental Health First Aiders are not a replacement for professional mental health care. When implementing an effective a mental health strategy, organisations should enable adequate access to mental health care, including talking therapy such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, and psychiatric support, alongside MHFA training.

This approach provides personalised support according to the individual’s needs; there is no one-size fit all approach to our mental health needs. This also enables Mental Health First Aiders to signpost individuals to relevant services if further support is needed.

Collecting and analysing data on why employees access MHFA and the access rates of other services following an MHFA intervention, enables organisations to tailor ongoing MHFA training, better equipping MHFA to deal with the circumstances presented and drive continuous improvement.

2. Create a diverse, inclusive, multi-skilled network

Ensuring success of your network starts with the right people. Establishing a diverse network starts with a robust recruitment process that is support by experts.

Once you have recruited the right people, set guidelines and expectations of what you want to achieve. Harness and empower the network to not only support your organisation from a peer-to-peer perspective, but encourage them to develop strategies to reduce the stigma associated with mental health within your organisation.

3. Keep their skills fresh

Setting one-to-ones with instructors enables Mental Health First Aiders to run through real-life examples anonymously and demonstrate how they interacted with the individual they provided support to and the outcomes. Instructors can ensure that the appropriate steps were taken and provide any further guidance needed.

Ensuring high quality training for Mental Health First Aiders provides a baseline from which any interaction should be measured. Ongoing training ensures your Mental Health First Aiders are kept up to date in their knowledge, feel confident in having conversations and have the right information and resources.

Supervision of the MHFA network is crucial and regular refresher training ensures Mental Health First Aiders are trained with best practice and reinforces the expectations for the service and boundaries of the role. The format should include an element of testing Mental Health First Aider knowledge to ensure that expectations are being met.

4. Encourage user feedback

Encourage your MHFA network to record their interventions through a wider healthcare/HR function. Ask for user feedback or experiences from those who are willing to help promote your network.

A qualitative survey that can be replicated to ensure the same measures are used in all cases should be developed in conjunction with an MHFA instructor/expert. This should include specific questions pertinent to mental health outcomes, while considering related factors such as whether they have received any other mental health support inside or outside of work.

5. Prevention better than cure

To measure the success of these programmes, organisations should ensure a work environment that accepts and encourages the disclosure of mental ill-health problems so that support can be provided before ill-health sets in.

Creating an environment that promotes disclosure helps improve employee engagement and organisational resilience, creating a productive, inclusive and, above all, happy place to work, allowing employees to thrive in the workplace and in their personal lives.

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