If you hurt yourself at work, your employer is legally required to have a first aider on hand to help. But what if you’re struggling with your mental health – who do you turn to then?
It’s currently not compulsory for employers to have members of staff trained in mental health first aid (MHFA), but that may soon change thanks to a public petition which has received 200,000 signatures, cross-party support from over 60 MPs and backing from over 50 UK businesses.
On 17 January, the issue was debated in parliament. This came just months after HSE – Britain’s independent regulator for work-related health – released guidance on MHFA for the first time ever.
More than 340,000 people in England have learned the skills to date – and for those who have been helped by it already, it’s proven life-saving.
“If I didn’t have that support, I don’t think I’d be here,” Rachael, who works for Dermalogica, told HuffPost UK.
MHFA is the mental health equivalent of physical first aid training, providing people with the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues. It also teaches trainees to effectively guide a person towards the right support, be that self-help or professional services.
Receiving an email from Dermalogica’s newly-trained mental health first aid team last summer, Rachael contacted them immediately. “I was really struggling and I saw it as a bit of a sign. I didn’t really know who else to go to,” she said.
Sarah, Dermalogica’s HR manager and one of two mental health first aiders, told HuffPost UK she was shocked at just how many people reached out for help after the email went out to all staff. Very quickly, she became Rachael’s lifeline.
As Rachael said: “Sarah noticed I wasn’t how I usually was, it made me feel like I’m not invisible. To also sit there and let me speak about how I feel and what’s happened, and take everything in, it made me feel reassured that I wasn’t just an employee, but she took my personal and mental health into consideration.”
Together, Rachael and Sarah discussed the next best steps to take: they phoned the GP together and went to an appointment that very same day. “Sarah personally took me to my doctor’s,” Rachael said. “When I had my appointment, she came in with me as well so they could discuss what would be the best thing for me at work, as well as what steps my doctor wanted to take.”
Rachael ended up taking three weeks off work and then began a phased return with the help of Sarah. She also had private counselling, instigated through the company’s employee benefits scheme, and free cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) via her GP.
“I don’t feel I get a lot of support outside of work. That’s a very big struggle,” said Rachael. “When I saw that [support] from Sarah, it made me emotional to know there was somebody who did care.”
Despite the growing numbers of people trained in MHFA, its success was recently called into question when IOSH commissioned University of Nottingham researchers to look at its impact compared to other mental health courses at work. Researchers determined it was a “useful vehicle for raising awareness around mental health issues”, but they couldn’t ascertain whether it was the best or only means of doing so, or whether it was cost effective.
Billie Dee Gianfrancesco begs to differ. The 29-year-old from Norwich said signing up to do the training not only meant she helped dozens of people in her workplace, but she was also able to help herself – getting support that eventually led to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I’ve always struggled with my mental health, but for most of my life was too ashamed of the stigma to be honest with myself about it,” she said.
It was her step-dad who suggested she should sign up to do the MHFA course, pitching it as something to help her career, and she decided it couldn’t hurt. “In hindsight I think he wanted to give me some tools to help myself,” she said. “I was refusing to go to counselling or therapy at the time.”
Stigma around mental health issues is a huge challenge for many, especially at work where you feel you might be judged or even lose your job. A survey of more than 44,000 employees by the charity Mind found half of people had experienced a mental health problem in their current job, yet just half of those who had experienced poor mental health had talked to their employer about it. Heads Together research shows that just 2% of people are prepared to talk to HR about mental health.
Gianfrancesco, who works for the law firm Vardags, estimates she’s helped more than colleagues with MHFA – and she’s been able to use her own struggles as a springboard to open up conversation. “I’m often asked to go for a coffee or lunch by people who need support and I’m delighted that people feel comfortable approaching me in that way,” she said.
“I do think MHFA should be compulsory in all work places. If first aid is required in every workplace then having someone MHFA trained should also be required. I am trained in both, and I have used MHFA countless times to help colleagues – yet I’ve only had to use my physical first aid skills once.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.