The pros and cons of Mental Health First Aid training

 In Mental Health, Wellbeing

We are increasingly being asked for Mental Health First Aid training and whilst it’s wonderful that businesses are looking to engage in some kind of wellbeing activity, we also need to be aware of its limitations and increase the understanding that it isn’t an end to end solution for employee wellbeing.

The pros of MHFA training

The upside of the training is that it gives a very good grounding of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions and aims to create an understanding of how to offer some basic support to somebody who may be at crisis point. It also touches on suicide; a hugely important but difficult topic and one which we need to talk more about if we want to save more lives here. The training is well designed, interactive and engaging for the most part (obviously depending on the quality of the instructor). As the course is accredited, there is also a standard of content that you can expect from this training.

Understanding the pitfalls of MHFA training

In my opinion, one of the biggest pitfalls of MHFA training is the abundance of instructors who have done the seven days’ worth of training and have a shiny instructor certificate to show for it, but without any previous experience or knowledge in this area. Personally I’m not sure how responsible it is to put someone in the room to deliver a course touching on suicide, psychosis illnesses and depression with merely a few days of training behind them. 

It is our company policy to only work with instructors who have additional relevant qualifications or training. I can talk from experience from when I originally took the 2-day course; it can stir up some difficult emotions and can evoke some challenging questions. Almost everyone has been touched by mental illness in some way (whether directly or in-directly), so the instructor has to be sufficiently prepared to deal with what comes up in the room. Does seven days of training prepare you for that? I’m not so sure. 

There is also very little quality control. After completing the instructor training, there is nothing to ensure you are delivering the course correctly and with integrity. I have heard many a horror story about an MHFA instructor rambling on for an hour about their own personal mental illness experience, or managing time poorly and having to skip modules. 

What we are also finding through our conversations with businesses is people are unclear on what a mental health first aider is actually qualified to do. I often speak to HR teams who are concerned about the wellbeing of their mental health first aiders and worried that they are being drawn in to a counsellor type role (which of course they are not qualified to do). 

The idea is that a mental health first aider would play a similar role to mental health as what a physical first aider would to physical health. They are there to assist in a moment of crisis or distress until the person is able to receive professional treatment. The sad truth is, if you are assisting someone with a broken leg until the ambulance gets there, you can be fairly confident that they’ll receive the treatment they need to nurse them back to good health. But if you’re assisting someone in mental distress, the chance of them receiving the same level of care in our health system is unlikely, which is why the problem often doesn’t end there. You wouldn’t expect to go back to the person that assisted you with physical first aid when you broke your leg, if it wasn’t healing properly. But with mental health first aiders, this is what often happens. If not managed correctly, they can become a soundboard for anyone struggling with stress, anxiety or depression on an ongoing basis. 

The lines and boundaries are a little blurry so clear guidelines should be sent out to everyone in the business on what a mental health first aider in the company can and can’t do. What they can’t do is just as important as what they can do so extra emphasis should be put on this to protect everyone’s wellbeing. It is important that this expectation is set. We provide guidelines to our clients along these lines, but unfortunately this isn’t universal. 

Does this mean we shouldn’t be running MHFA training as an organization?

As we delve deeper into workplace wellbeing and find more sophisticated solutions, we need to be constantly considering how to do this as safely and as responsibly as possible. And as the market gets more and more crowded, we need to be ensuring quality control at every step to make sure we are not doing more harm than good. 

Mental health first aid training is something we do encourage, but not as a standalone solution and most importantly, we need to go into it with our eyes open. Don’t sacrifice quality for price; the value of MHFA training, is when the instructor can go above and beyond just reading a script and can respond with confidence to whatever may come up in the room. If you would like more information on MHFA training, please don’t hesitate to get in touch, we are always happy to safely guide businesses throughout this process.