Mental Health First Aid: Raising Awareness and Saving Lives

To mark Mental Health Day 2021, our Managing Director Paul Hughes reflects on workplace wellbeing and the life-saving impact of Mental Health First Aiders.

Having worked for over 30 years in health and safety roles, keeping people safe has been the driving purpose of my career. Perhaps inevitably, physical safety has been my prime focus, particularly as my background is in high-risk sectors such as construction, petrochemicals, highways, nuclear and rail.

However, over the years I have become increasingly aware of the equal importance of mental safety. Despite (or perhaps because of) its male-dominated, macho reputation, the construction industry has the highest suicide rate of any sector. Working away from home, unpredictability, financial pressures and stress all take their toll and, in an environment where you don’t talk about your feelings, people have nowhere to go when life gets tough.

This was why I leapt at the chance to take part in a Mental Health First Aid training course back in 2013.

Mental Health First Aid originated in Australia and came to England in 2007. It is founded on the belief that we need to create a society where everyone can thrive and where there is zero stigma surrounding mental health. The ultimate goal is to train one in ten people as Mental Health First Aiders – I believe that every workplace with over five employees should have at least one trained Mental Health First Aider.

For me, the training proved a turning point. It was an emotional experience, encouraging discussion of difficult topics that all too often we avoid. It taught me how to read the signs of depression and how to approach people who might need help. Although you can’t see mental fatigue, there are warning flags and behaviours to look out for. I learnt the importance of non-judgemental listening and asking bold, honest questions.

In short, becoming a Mental Health First Aider has had a profound impact on my life – and not just in the workplace. Soon after I completed the training, a friend opened up to me about his struggles with depression. Rather than feeling out of my depth, I was able to respond openly and help him put in place strategies for coping and moving on with his life.

It has been fantastic to see the growing awareness of mental health in recent years, manifested in activities like the annual Mental Health Day. The changes in the construction sector have been particularly noticeable – it’s common practice now to ensure there is a Mental Health First Aider on every site and I’ve been able to put mental wellbeing on the agenda at board meetings of companies I’ve worked in. I’m proud to be associated with an organisation which sends out a regular care circular that supports health and wellbeing and signposts colleagues to sources of help.

However, there are still hundreds of thousands of individuals out there putting a brave face on it. Covid-19 has heightened mental health issues and we’re likely to face a difficult winter ahead, with people coming off furlough and a possible spike in the virus. If it’s in your power, I urge you to organise Mental Health First Aid training and revisit your occupational health policies and procedures to ensure they are robust. In addition, monitor your partners and try to work with companies that want to make the workplace a happier place to be.

If you’re struggling yourself, talk openly and honestly with someone you trust, who you know will listen and not judge. Acknowledging you need help is half the battle.

While we’ve undoubtedly come a long way, there’s still a long way to go. I look forward to the day when society truly recognises that treating mental health is just as important as physical health if we want people to stay well, happy and safe.

If you would like a chat about Mental Health First Aid and the contribution it could make to your organisation, please give me a call on 07773 946891.

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