Are you expecting too much from your Mental Health First Aider?

The rise of mental health knowledge and the expectation of the workplace to legally assess workplace stress and manage mental health without discrimination has led to the demand for mental health initiatives. The most widely used and the ever-growing is mental health first aid, the training initiative started in Australia in 2000 with Mental health first aid England launching in 2007. With 109,000 adult mental health first aiders trained in 2018/2019 alone, this initiative is fast becoming a must-have in any organisation.

With the training only taking two days, the outcomes of the training are limited and give delegates a sound overview of Mental Health. The training focuses on the most common mental health factors and how to support someone in crisis;

  • Understand the important factors affecting mental ill-health
  • Identify the signs and symptoms for a range of mental health conditions
  • Use ALGEE to provide Mental Health First Aid to someone experiencing a mental health issue or crisis
  • Listen non-judgementally and hold supportive conversations using the Mental Health First Aid action plan
  • Signpost people to professional help, recognising that your role as a Mental Health First Aider does not replace the need for ongoing support

ALGEE is the approach that mental health first aiders are trained to use when dealing with a mental health first aid situation, which could be a potential crisis. The approach isn’t that dissimilar from the physical first aid approach, as explained below.

Both Mental Health and Physical First aid are the first response to a situation. However, workplaces seem to be taking the Mental Health First Aid role for something it is most definitely not. MHFA England is explicit in its message that there training is not to create therapists, counsellors, or any form of a specialist in mental health. As a Mental Health First Aid licensed instructor, I make sure I follow through with this message within my training sessions. I am ensuring that organisations take on the right procedures, processes, and policies around the training to reinforce this message. Unfortunately, in some organisations, Mental Health first aiders are being asked to do more than their remit, and at no time would this be my advice. Here are some of the highlights –

Drop-in sessions

Mental Health First Aiders should not be carrying out drop-in sessions. They are not a triage to mental health issues within the workplace. We would not ask physical first aiders to hold a drop-in session for employees to visit with there in-growing toenails and to diagnosis there cold or chest infection. Therefore why are workplaces putting this remit into a mental health first aider role?

Contact

While Mental Health First aiders must be contactable, this should be no more than you would expect a physical first aider. However, I have heard of employers supporting contact cards for the mental health first aiders with mobile numbers, making them contactable outside work hours. This is overstepping not only the remit of a mental health first aider but also personal boundaries. It is not safe for either the person in a potential crisis or the Mental Health First aider. Mental Health First Aiders should be encouraging the use of the Samaritans or workplace EAP outside of hours.

HR support  

Mental Health First Aiders, unless already qualified or working in an HR role, should not be used to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace. Mental Health First Aiders are being asked to support the HR process in some cases without an employee requesting the support. Which is not ethical and is passing the buck with regards to managing and supporting an employee with mental ill-health.

Replacing the employment assistant programme (EAP)

Mental Health First Aiders cannot replace the employee assistant programme. The employee assistance programme will offer a range of products and advice from specialists. The mental health first aiders should use EAP as signposting to further support, which is the E’s in the ALGEE acronym.

Booking ongoing sessions.

Mental Health First Aiders should not be seen as ongoing support for an employee experience ill mental health. This could build an unhealthy dependency; this a risk to both parties due to the limited training. Workplaces should put a good structure to how mental health first aiders are utilised, ensuring that they are not being asked to step up as therapists and counsellors.

Confidentiality

MHFA training does address the importance of privacy; however, organisations are not putting a big enough emphasis around this. In some cases, MHFAs are discussing confidential information with line managers and other team members. Frequently it is coming from a positive place, but it is not appropriate unless there is a safety need to pass the information on.

In conclusion, employers need to start putting structure around mental health first aiders, and they need to understand the role before buying into the initiative. If they have areas of mental health that need addressing that fall outside the remit of a mental health first aider, they need to manage this more appropriately. There are many ways to do this around strategies and other current training initiatives. The Mental Health First aider role is an excellent provision when used in the right format accompanied by good structure. It will go wrong, which could potentially be damaging if not utilised in the right way.