If you think about physical first aid, you might picture an ambulance or medical team arriving on the scene of an emergency. Perhaps you picture someone performing the Heimlich Maneuver or helping a collapsed person recover by calling for help.
That’s essentially the philosophy behind mental health first aid. It asks that we consider the mind in much the same way as the body — a wonderful machine that can break down occasionally and needs immediate attention.
Now imagine that same first aid scenario, but with mental health responders. Instead of checking for vital signs and symptoms, they’re calming down an anguished individual or distracting someone from negative, or even suicidal, thoughts. In that moment of mental crisis, they’re the first person to respond to the situation, so they can stay with them and call for professionals. It’s exactly the same way a paramedic, or concerned individual, will pass over a person with a physical injury to a paramedic or a doctor.
But how can you train to prevent an injury to an abstract problem? How do you perform ‘first aid’ on a mind?
Expanding your lexicon
Any first-year medical student will tell you that there are a lot of different terms to become familiar with before you can come near to walking the hospital floor. Psychiatrists and therapists are armed to the teeth with terms for talking about mental health and explaining away the human brain.
Likewise, your biggest tool as a mental health first aider is your lexicon — your verbal and visual reference bank for dealing with anyone experiencing mental distress.
Imagine a pair of flash cards.
One contains the word, the other the object itself. When children learn to talk, they associate the word card with the picture card. The older they get, the more they learn, and the further they understand the different distinctions of that word.
Training in mental health first aid allows you to recognise the condition and the associated word or phrase confidently. Not only does the training help with understanding what the terms mean, but it also helps you understand the ambiguities.
Because not all domestic, four-legged furry animals will be cats.
Half the battle is in learning the confidence to approach someone. Armed with your knowledge of terms and what specific instances they apply to, the next step is dealing with and applying the lessons learned.
Like a politician before a key speech, we’ll cover methods for approaching someone experiencing mental anguish, whether they’re in the midst of a panic attack or a continuous low-energy depressive mood. We’ll cover how to talk to people whose behaviour is causing issues (e.g. continued absence or underperformance at work) and how you can approach this problem without triggering a negative reaction.
Once you have the confidence to note mental health issues accurately and approach others, it’s time to factor your learning into a plan.
Whether you’re dealing with an entire office, a family member or a friend, an action plan is vital for ensuring the issue is dealt with and not promptly swept under the rug.
We tend to use the ALGEE system initially to help begin the first aid process and ensure it leads to more structured, professional help. ALGEE follows a simple structure;
A – Approach the person, assess and assist with any crisis
L – Listen and communicate non-judgementally
G – Give support and information
E – Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help
E – Encourage other supports
We also suggest an ongoing action plan that helps uncover and prevent unrecognised mental health concerns. This normally would involve reviewing a company’s policy to create a more ‘open door’ environment or rethinking how a group of people normally interact. The aim isn’t to drastically change behaviours but to practice new, positive ways of managing an awkward conversation.
Any profession requires testing and practice, whether the person in question is a hairdresser, lawyer, or even a champion dominoes player. Seeing examples, testing others, and practicing what you’ve learned is key to ensuring lessons remain learned.
We review any video, written, and practiced scenarios in class, testing our responses in simulated environments until our knowledge and actions feel comfortable. The aim is to give students a skill they can take away and develop in their own time, bringing their new knowledge in line with their current way of thinking.
Does MHFA work?
Mental Health First Aid is meant to train people as first responders, not as doctors or licensed professionals. Its impact is hard to measure because the actual therapy occurs afterward.
Mental Health First Aiders are there to notice, respond and seek help for others. The course is meant to instill a sense of social or corporate responsibility so that the pros can do their job.
So the more we’re able to recognise mental health problems, the more we can help others get the treatment they need. If you’d like to book a course for your workplace, social group, class, or any other collection of important people in your life, you can sign up for one of our Mental Health First Aid programs here.