Would you know how to help a colleague in emotional crisis? 22 Aug 2018


Mental Illness

Would you know how to help a colleague in emotional crisis?


If a colleague collapsed, would you know what to do? I’m pretty sure you’d quickly spring into action and do the right thing. But would you have the skills and confidence to be able to help someone who is mentally unwell? The stark truth is that you’re much more likely to come across someone who is contemplating suicide than someone who is having a heart attack. But would you know how to help?


When we think of first aid, we tend to think of treating physical emergencies. Employers have a legal obligation to provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work, but this only covers physical illness. Unfortunately, we’re a long way behind when it comes to mental ill-health, even though the research shows that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any one year.  Does your company have trained mental health first aiders?


Mental illness is highly stigmatising, and one study showed that 94% of business leaders admitted to being prejudiced towards employees with a history of mental ill-health. This is a staggering statistic and reflects the fact that we often view physical illness and mental illness quite differently. For example, there is a tendency to see mental illness as having a certain degree of choice. We might ask a person who is suffering from depression the question ‘why?’ but would we ask the same of a colleague suffering from diabetes for example?


An interesting exercise is to think about the common language used to describe people with mental illness, for example ‘schizo’, ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, ‘waster’ and ‘sandwich short of a picnic’ (and many more). On a mental health first aid course, we ask students to come up with a list of positive/neutral terms associated with mental ill-health, as well as a list of negative terms. Without exception, the negative list is much longer and easier to create. The negative words are at the forefront of peoples’ mind (even if they don’t themselves use them). The negative terminology is all pretty hurtful and damaging stuff, and we just don’t have the same kind of vocabulary to describe people who are physically unwell. Can you imagine calling someone with cancer a ‘waster’?


Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn and more helpful conversations about mental ill-health are increasing. Workplaces are starting to focus on mental ill-health in a more positive way, for example, by training staff in mental health first aid. The impact of mental illness in our society is becoming better understood, and it’s becoming safer to stand up and say that you’ve suffered from mental ill-health. We all have mental health just as we all have physical health, and in the same way that people’s physical health can be poor at times, so too can their physical health. But sometimes people don’t know how to help, fear saying the wrong things and might not know what sources of help and support are available.


With approximately one in four people experiencing a mental health problem each year and with mental health services stretched beyond capacity, it’s important that friends, family and colleagues know what to do if someone experiences a mental health crisis in the community. This is what mental health first aid training is all about. The course equips people with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to help them recognise the signs of mental ill-health, listen and communicate non-judgementally, and sign-post to appropriate help, including self-help strategies. The course also encourages people focus on their own mental health and identify healthy coping mechanisms for stressful times. There is a strong focus on the concept of recovery, and course instructors work hard to dismantle the myths and stigma associated with mental illness.


Paul, who has his own experience of serious mental ill health has this to say on the importance of MHFA:

‘I fully understand that opening up and telling someone that you’re struggling can seem impossible. It may feel like you don’t want to bother your GP. It may feel like talking to friends, family or partner might create more problems than it solves. I completely get that. This is one of the reasons that I feel so passionately about the role of the Mental Health First Aider in my organisation and, frankly, in any organisation. Our role is simply to be there as another outlet. A different point of contact. Not to absorb and resolve every issue that anyone has, of course, but to be another pair of ears willing to listen, to empathise and hopefully to work with you to help steer you in the right direction if you need help.’


In doing a mental health first aid course, you’ll learn about common mental health conditions, warning signs and sources of help and support. This background knowledge, combined with the 5 step MHFA action plan, will help equip you with the skills and confidence to spot and support someone experiencing mental health problems. If you’d like to find out more, contact Claire at  hello@redlotusconsulting.co.uk


About Claire

Qualifying as a nurse in 1992, Claire has worked for many years in the NHS. The last 20 years have been spent in various NHS leadership positions, most recently as a national Head of Learning, Development and Quality. As well as working within the health service, she is also the founder of Red Lotus Consulting, an organisation developed to provide training and consultancy services focusing on mental health, resilience, compassionate management and workplace wellbeing. Claire is dedicated to helping people create happier, healthier and more productive lives at work and at home. She believes passionately in the power of compassion, kindness and authentic connection in all areas of life. Claire and her amazing team believe that high quality education has the power to transform individuals, workplaces and communities, and they are privileged to be able to offer Adult MHFA training on behalf of MHFA England.


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