30/03/2017 07:02 BST | Updated 31/03/2018 06:12 BST

Would You Know What To Do In A Mental Health Crisis?

First aid is a powerful act of compassion - caring about others' pain and taking action to heal it. It's time to bring that compassion to bear on mental health - at home and abroad.

Danny Moloshok / Reuters

There's a deadline looming at your office. Stressed by his workload and afraid of being fired, your colleague starts to panic, breathing rapidly. It might be an anxiety attack.

What do you do?

A close friend has been depressed, absent and withdrawn for weeks. Suddenly you get a chipper phone call. Would you recognise the mood shift as a potential warning sign? What would you say?

If your co-worker had a heart attack or your friend broke an ankle, the protocol would be pretty clear. Stabilise an injured limb; wrap and elevate a wound. Administer CPR, if properly trained. Call for help. But what about mental health crises like the ones above, described to us by mental health first aid trainers?

Unlike blocked arteries or broken bones, mental illness is shrouded in stigma. People are reluctant to talk about it and, when confronted with someone in crisis, few know what to do. Still, odds are much greater that you'll encounter someone with an anxiety disorder or depression than someone with heart disease. Statistically, mental illness affects much more of the population--one in four UK citizens every year according to a survey by the National Centre of Social Research.

You don't have to be a passive bystander, struggling for words or paralysed by ignorance. Throughout the UK and other developed countries, a growing number of people are becoming mental health first responders. Mental health first aid (MFHA) teaches you what to do in an emergency, breaking down fears and myths to increase awareness of mental illness.

First aiders learn an exercise for hyperventilating panic victims: they should focus on the responder's hand as they raise and lower it to help control their breathing. A panic attack and a heart attack have some similar physical symptoms; always call 999 or 112 just in case.

Through discussion and interactive role play, MFHA training breaks down the discomfort involved in talking about mental illnesses like depression. More importantly, participants learn to ask hard but vital questions.

MFHA students learn to recognise signs and symptoms of mental illnesses in four areas: mood disorders, anxiety, addiction and substance abuse, and psychotic disorders. Myths--like the belief that people suffering psychotic issues are always violent--are demolished.

Critically, first aiders are made aware of the mental health resources available locally, so they can refer those in crisis to the appropriate contacts.

Originally created in Australia, mental health first aid is catching on throughout the developing world. The community interest company Mental Health First Aid England offers training courses for adults, young people, and the armed forces. In January, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that MHFA training will be made available to all secondary schools in the UK.

Across the pond in Canada, a growing number of organisations across the country, like the national branch of St. John's Ambulance, are providing training.

However, mental health crises are not just a first world problem.

On every continent but Africa, suicide has replaced maternal health problems as the number one killer of teenage girls. The World Health Organization estimates that, in African countries like Uganda, up to 90 per cent of those in need of mental health assistance don't get it. And the stigma against those living with mental illness can be far worse.

In places like Afghanistan, international development programmes have achieved great results, such as reducing maternal and child mortality, by training ordinary people to be community health workers and first responders. Imagine what could be achieved by also training them in mental health first aid.

First aid is a powerful act of compassion - caring about others' pain and taking action to heal it. It's time to bring that compassion to bear on mental health - at home and abroad.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.  Be part of the movement and take the WE Pledge at