24/01/2019 16:09 GMT | Updated 24/01/2019 16:09 GMT

Mental Health First Aid Is Having Its Moment In Westminster – Here's Why That Matters

We need parity of esteem between mental and physical First Aid – and it is now a case of when and not if

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Last week, MPs from across the political spectrum debated a Parliamentary motion on updating health and safety legislation to put mental and physical first aid on an equal footing in the workplace.

On the ground this would mean that every organisation with First Aiders would also have a mental health first aider. That is to say, someone trained to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health, someone who is confident to broach topics like suicide and self-harm, and perhaps most importantly, who knows where to signpost a colleague to if they need further support.

This debate followed nine months of campaigning by Natasha Devon, Bauer Media UK and the whole Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England community as part of ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ – a campaign which revealed huge support for the issue right across society.

The general public, mental health campaigners, trade unions and leading employers have all voiced their support since the campaign’s launch during Mental Health Awareness Week 2018. And now, even in our fraught political climate, MPs from the five largest parties have come together to join these calls.

Following nearly two hours of discussions as part of a debate organised by the Backbench Business Committee, the Deputy Speaker closed proceedings by announcing, ‘the ayes have it!’. This indicated the majority view that first aid legislation should protect both our mental and physical health – a really encouraging sign as mental health first aid’s journey in Parliament gets underway.

The debate was initially tabled by a cross party cross-party trio of MPs including Luciana Berger MP (Lab), Norman Lamb MP (Lib Dem) and Johnny Mercer MP (Con), with the motion backed by 60 other Members from across the House.

These are the first steps towards legislative change in Parliament and we now look forward to the opportunity to continue to work with MPs, employers, regulators and those in the mental health sector to take this agenda forward over the course of the year.

Whilst it’s a small change, this legislation would create a much-needed baseline for providing mental health support in the workplace. And it’s here that we would do well to learn the lessons from physical First Aid.

As Peter Aldous MP (Con), who leads a parliamentary advocacy group on First Aid, pointed out during the debate, there’s much to take from the experience of organisations like St. John Ambulance – the leading provider of physical First Aid training.

Historically, regulation around physical First Aid helped employers take a huge leap forward in protecting their people’s physical health, so it stands to reason that the same will be true of protecting their mental health.

Granted there is no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to workplace mental health. As any occupational health and safety professional will tell you, mental health first aid is not a solution on its own, but it is a key ingredient.

Yorkshire Water, for example, is one of the employers leading the way and has trained over 700 of its employees in MHFA England courses, including 290 managers. Its MHFA programme is part of a wider strategic approach to health and wellbeing, which includes a mental health support group, a menopause self-help group, a weight management programme, fast-track referral systems and workshops on everything from sleep hygiene to resilience, to suicide prevention.

In the three years since it first introduced this preventative approach, Yorkshire Water has seen a staggering 48% reduction in referrals to external counselling, highlighting the positive impact of building a mentally healthy workplace.

Many employers are beginning their mental health and wellbeing journeys, but what the research also shows is that mental health first aid can be a catalyst here – creating and embedding a culture of care.

Recently, academics from the University of Nottingham found that in over 80 workplaces, the vast majority of employees said that mental health first aid had stimulated positive change across a range of areas including decreasing mental health stigma, improve signposting procedures and sparking involvement in national mental health events.

This tells us that by creating more open, supportive workplaces we can lay the foundations for other initiatives, like those in place at Yorkshire Water, to take root. So as well as being a useful intervention in its own right, it’s clear that mental health first aid has the power to contribute to real culture change – and there’s no reason that any workplace should be left behind.

Both the moral and the financial case for supporting mental health at work are undeniable. However, the truth is that warm words, good intentions and well-meaning guidance can only do so much to shift the dials.

In this mould, often only the most enlightened organisations take meaningful action to support their employees’ mental health. The rest lose out, both their people and their bottom lines.

With this legislative change we can ensure everyone wins. And whilst the Minister for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention may not yet be convinced of the case for change, the consensus is clear – we need parity of esteem between mental and physical First Aid – and it is now a case of when and not if.