In September 2019, The Guardian reported that a record number of mental health first aiders—140,000—were being trained across the UK. FTSE 100 companies alone were said to have trained more than 10,000 employees as mental health first aiders, with Lloyds Banking Group leading the way at around 2,500.

Since its introduction in 2009, a total of at least half a million people have received mental health first aid training. Trainees have come from small local shops to massive global conglomerates; this widespread adoption is a major triumph for Mental Health First Aid England, the national training body tasked with managing this gamechanging programme.

What is mental health first aid?

Mental Health First Aid is a training programme developed in Australia by mental health educators Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm in 2000, typically taking the form of an intense, voluntary two-day course.

The programme was designed to train ordinary members of the public to spot the signs of mental ill-health and provide access to support. In the workplace it is a useful tool for empowering employees, raising awareness, changing attitudes and educating people on how to provide support to colleagues affected by mental ill-health. Colleagues who have completed the course will not become qualified counsellors, but are instead invaluable ‘listeners’ who can confidentially respond to distressed colleagues and point them in the direction of more formal care.

For instance, someone with appropriate mental health first aid skills can respond effectively to a person feeling suicidal, having a panic attack or suffering from acute anxiety, recommend the most effective next steps, and ultimately reduce any risk of harm. 

How does mental health first aid work?

Mental health first aid training has been shown to raise awareness, improve knowledge and change attitudes towards mental health. Providing a basic level of education to a workforce can reduce stigma, normalise helpful behaviour and make a workplace more accessible and welcoming to people affected by mental ill-health.

The programme has also been praised for providing people suffering from mental ill-health a point of communication and an avenue for seeking more formal care.

However, there is relatively little evidence that MHFA training actually improves mental health on its own.

Some mental health professionals have expressed concern that MHFA training will simply become a box-ticking exercise for firms at the expense of substantive changes to their wellbeing policies. Many instead recommend training mental health first aiders as part of a wider strategy that includes improving work-life balance and eliminating sources of stress.

Some companies have adopted complementary strategies for tackling mental ill-health, such as implementing confidential helplines and providing counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy for staff. Others might offer digital tools such as Headspace and Unmind.

These work effectively in concert with mental health first aiders, who can point their colleagues in the direction of the other resources offered by their firm. 


Raising awareness is the key

Awareness is especially important for mental health, and the ability to spot the signs of distress or anxiety in your colleagues can be critical, particularly because many people who experience mental ill-health may not even realise.

Providing an outlet for confidential communication and raising awareness among staff can help people understand what they’re experiencing, and how they can take steps to deal with stress, depression and anxiety.

To discover more ways to handle mental ill-health in the workplace, get your free ticket to Workplace Wellbeing Show 2020. Taking place on 8-10 September at ExCeL London, this show offers seminars and presentations on key wellbeing trends and strategies, and hosts suppliers of leading wellbeing solutions to help you improve workplace wellbeing.