Don't be afraid of mental health first aid

“I was sitting next to a women suffering a panic attack on a flight from Perth. I offered to help her and acted pretty normal about the situation even thought I could see she was really embarrassed. I distracted her child while she focused on getting her anxiety under control. I think it helped her to know that I knew something about panic attacks and that I was comfortable with her situation.”

Mental health first aid (MHFA) is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. Many people are afraid to become MHFAiders because they believe they don’t have the skills to talk to others or that they must possess an encyclopedia-knowledge base of mental health disorders. Not the case. MHFA is not about diagnosing people, giving them labels or telling them what they should do to get better! It is about being confident and competent to open up the dialogue with a person and support them to access the help they might need.

MHFA training is so successful as an early intervention (and as part of treatment / prevention) that in 2014, Swedish researchers published a systematic review and meta-analysis of 15 major MHFA trials. Highly statistically significant improvements were found in knowledge, attitudes and helping behaviour. Those who complete the course often remark that they didn’t realise how easy it is to give MHFA, and that they feel far more confident to support family, friends, colleagues and strangers who may experience mental ill-health or a mental health crisis.

“I recognised clinical depression that was leading to suicide thoughts in one of my work colleagues. I listened, did not prejudge, even though it was through some pretty messed up personal issues. My work colleague became calm and easy going with me (I think he realised I wasn’t going to judge him) and I was able to give suggestions on what he/we could do e.g. go to the GP, seek a counsellor etc.”

Depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect 1 in 5 people each year, and yet many people are not well-informed about recognising them. MHFA training provides a valuable tool to increasing understanding, decreasing stigma and discrimination and ultimately, teaching us valuable skills to be the gatekeepers of each other’s mental health.