More and more workplaces are offering training and introducing mental health first aiders to support their staff- here’s what it’s like to be one, and why it could prove more useful than the traditional first aid box at work

Any products in this article have been selected editorially however if you buy something we mention, we may earn commission

Likelihood is you’ve participated in at least some form of first aid training, whether it’s a Brownies badge, basic care skills at school or a full on St John’s Ambulance course to equip you with the fundamentals of what to do if someone’s choking, bleeding, unconscious or suffered a head injury, among other health emergencies. Most of us have an elemental grasp of what to do if someone is experiencing a critical physical problem, but how about a mental health issue?

The recent groundswell of high profile awareness raising by mental health advocates such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, Bryony Gordon, Matt Haig  and countless other campaigners, authors, charities and courageous everyday folk has resulted in a far more open dialogue around mental wellbeing, but putting mental health support on the agenda in a practical sense in our everyday lives has been a tougher nut to crack. Mental health at work has been a particular flash point, with a 2017 report revealing that, for 60 percent of us, our jobs are significant triggers  when it comes to mental health issues.

In a positive move towards greater recognition and support for employees suffering with mental health problems, many proactive companies across sectors ranging from media to finance to public services are making mental health first aid a key component of workplace wellbeing, alongside providing comfortable workspaces, fair working policies and custard creams. Mental health provision should be that basic: we can’t afford to sweep matters affecting our minds under the carpet, personally, collectively or economically.

Enter Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses , a national scheme that aims to train one in ten of the population of England to spot signs of mental ill health, offer initial help and guide people towards sources of further support. It’s not about becoming an office therapist per se, but recognising, listening, reassuring and responding to mental health flags at work, and potentially preventing a mental health problem spiralling into a critical situation. From half day ‘mental health aware’ courses to two day ‘mental health first aider’ qualifications, the programme aims to galvanise cultural and societal change in how we consider mental health in all contexts, but also equip us with the tools to manage our own mental wellbeing while caring for that of others too.

To find out how the scheme works on the ground, we spoke to mental health first aiders and instructors about the ins and outs of the role, why it’s so rewarding and how training has transformed lives in the boardroom and beyond.

What does a mental health first aider do?

PR manager at Happiful  and trained mental health first aider Amie Sparrow explains the function of a mental health first aider, and why she wanted to become a first aider herself:

“A mental health first aider teaches people how to help someone in a mental health crisis as well as recognising the signs of someone who is struggling with their mental health. I wanted to become a mental health first aider because I think that it’s so important to know how to help someone who’s in urgent need of support, just as most of us would want to know how to help someone who was in a physical first-aid predicament.

“Once you’ve completed the training you get a certificate and it’s a valuable addition to your CV. In my case there was a company announcement and I brought it up with my team in our meetings to remind them that I’m here to talk to if they are struggling at all. My role is to keep an eye out for anyone who might be dealing with mental health issues and in the event of a crisis enact the learnings from the training to help the person in question.”

While similar in principle to physical first aid training, MHFA course instructor Matt Holman emphasises that the skills you learn are as intellectually enlightening as they are practical”

“This is not like any other company training course that you might have attended in the past. This is a course that will help you and others and teaching is based upon opening our eyes wider to the world that we live in. It encompasses advice, emotional guidance and practical things you can do to help others both in the moment of a mental health incident and long-term.”

What mental health first aid training involves

If you’re expecting dry powerpoint presentations and cringey jargon, you’ll be glad to hear that a MHFA course addresses mental health from a real-life and relatable perspective, and you don’t need to do reams of homework or box ticking to qualify either. Matt underlines why training serves to benefit everyone in the team, and why signing up will lighten the load rather than add to your pile:

“The training encompasses taking people through an immersive, collaborative and supportive experience of mental health. We provide awareness of mental illness, work together in groups to gain greater insights, share experiences and stories of how we have been touched by mental illness, and really bring back some humanity to it all.

“The course is emotional but we put in place safeguards to ensure that people have the option to opt out if they are worried or concerned about anything. The key message from the training is one of self-care and making sure that you take the time to keep yourself mentally health too. If you feel supported and happy then you are well equipped to help others in the workplace.

“Everyone has their own personal reason for being in the room and I am lucky to hear these when people feel they are able to open up. We often know very little about each other in reality, and even those who sit closest to us in the office could be the ones who are struggling. We should talk openly about how we feel and not fear what might happen if we share our worries, no matter what our position in a company.”

Going beyond the 9-5

Amie has found herself implementing training outside of the workplace too, and it has made her more responsive and reflective in daily life:

“It’s great information to have, both for work-related issues and for being able to better assist friends, family and loved ones who might be facing difficulties with their mental health. The course was really eye-opening for me, and I considered myself to be pretty knowledgeable about mental health issues beforehand (I work for Counselling Directory  which runs a website that lists counsellors and mental health information and we publish a mental health magazine called Happiful).

“I learned so much and it made me reevaluate a lot of assumptions I had previously made about mental health. The training did make me go back and rethink how I had responded to a friend who was struggling with their mental health a few months before I did the course. After the training I realised that I would have approached the conversation differently than I did before the training. I feel that our company now practises what it preaches from a mental health support point of view. Talking things through and processing challenges with a trusted mental health first aider, friend or loved one (or all three) is so important.”

Lizzie Benton, founder of workplace mentoring company  Liberty Mind , agrees that the impact of MHFA training can be monumental for first aiders and those they help alike- it’s an initiative that goes far beyond plastering over an issue and improving productivity:

“Due to the mental health training, I've been able to give people guidance on where to get help for their specific issue, and make them feel less alone. It can be incredibly isolating when you're suffering, and to be able to make someone feel like they have support has been life changing.”

Is being a mental health first aider emotionally tough?

As previously mentioned, being a mental health first aider doesn’t equate to being a counsellor, just as conventional first aid training doesn’t qualify you as a doctor. The idea is to identify mental health issues, create a safe space, prevent escalation and refer anyone in need of support to further resources and trained professionals. As such, the more of us receiving training, the better, and the quicker we’ll eliminate damaging discrimination and taboos pertaining to mental health, both within the workplace and in the public domain at large. Just as Matt expressed, looking after your own wellbeing as a mental health first aider is paramount- here’s how Amie ensures she’s well enough to support others:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup, as they say! For me that means communicating openly and I have also found counselling to be helpful. I’m not currently seeing a counsellor, but I’m now aware of my own personal warning signs and know that if I start feeling down for too long or am becoming overwhelmed with negative, unhelpful thoughts, that it’s time to book in for a few counselling sessions and work through whatever might be causing that. While I know that not everyone can spare the expense, if you can afford a gym membership, or to get your hair and nails done once a month, you can certainly afford to invest in your mental health as well, and, for me, counselling helps.”

Why every workplace needs a mental health first aider

You’ve likely got a fire warden and designated health and safety protocol in place, and Lizzie reckons that mental health first aid should be just as par for the course at work. After all, it saves lives:

“As a mental health first aider, I've used my knowledge more than the physical first aid I'm also trained in. Many people suffer from a variety of mental health issues, and when you're in the workplace for eight hours a day it can be one of the most critical times to provide support.

“A lot of people wouldn't know how to spot the signs, let alone know how to ask if someone has considered taking their own life.”

Having a member of the team to start such conversations and be on call for mental health emergencies isn’t just comforting, it’s crucial. This week’s World Suicide Prevention Day  highlighted that one person takes their own life every 40 seconds- spotting the warning signs, and knowing what to do if you know or suspect that someone on your team is having suicidal feelings, will change more lives for the better that we can imagine.

While Amie was offered training by her employer, you can find out more about MHFA courses at work on the MHFA website  and sign up for a programme that suits you and the unique needs of your workplace and colleagues. Courses start at £125 per person, but some instructors may be able to access local funding to allow them to offer discounted places. While you’re there, you can also sign a petition urging the government to change health and safety regulations around first aid so that they include mental health as well as physical health.

For further support, information and listings of mental health resources, visit the  Mind website