Mental health first aid courses are being promoted across the UK to equip the public to provide immediate help to people in distress.
Helping put a bandage on someone with a physical injury is second nature to most people. But applying the equivalent to someone in emotional distress is more of a challenge.
With one in four of us likely to suffer from a mental health problem at some point and evidence of worsening mental health through unemployment and financial anxiety, there is a strong chance that people will encounter others in psychological pain.
Research by the Mental Health Foundation last year found 92% of us would stop and help someone knocked down and hurt, but only 51% would offer to help someone crying in public.
The survey also found that a quarter of people would not know what to do or say if someone close to them had worries about their own mental health, but 41% of people said they would turn to family if they had a problem with their own mental health.
In response to this situation, mental health first aid courses are spreading across the UK.
First developed in Australia in 2000, the aim of these 12-hour courses is to equip lay people to intervene early when a problem is detected, be it in the workplace or in public.
The courses teach the five steps of mental health first aid, or “Algee”:
- Assess risk of suicide or self-harm.
- Listen non-judgementally.
- Give reassurance and information.
- Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help.
- Encourage self-help strategies.
Jules Dakin, from the Welsh homelessness charity The Wallich, first heard about the concept two years ago and decided to contact Mind Cymru, which is leading on providing instructor training in Wales.
Now she runs courses mainly for staff at The Wallich but also for other organisations in Wales.
“In order to support someone in a crisis situation you don’t necessarily need to be a professionally qualified person,” says Dakin. “You just need the basic skills in identifying what might be going on and in signposting and supporting them in getting good help.
“What it aims to do is to give people who don’t have knowledge of mental health a little bit of confidence in dealing with all kinds of mental health issues.”
Trainees have been positive about the course. “It might be two days but there’s time for people to explore things that perhaps they’ve been doing for years and to look at how they respond in a crisis and whether it’s the right way,” she says.
“For people who work in a sector that’s peripheral to mental health but see a lot of people with mental health issues, it gives confidence.”
Rhys Bradley, a social worker in the Vale of Glamorgan, took the course run by Dakin a year ago because he felt his social work training left him “with a few gaps” in his mental health knowledge.
Bradley, who completed his training in July 2008, specialised in children and families but ended up working with adults with learning disabilities, where he has found a greater need for mental health awareness.
He recalls one occasion when he used his knowledge in the field.
“One service user experienced mental health problems largely because of alcoholism. I used those five steps in his case. I listened non-judgementally and he’s been encouraged to seek professional support, which he has done, and we’ve tried to identify self-help strategies and things he could focus his mind on other than drinking.”
Courses are available across the UK though funding mechanisms are different.
In Wales and Scotland, where suicide rates are higher historically than in England, courses have been funded centrally by countries’ governments, meaning rollout has been faster than in England.
However, even in England there are now 400 instructors and although they are concentrated in the South East and North East, courses are now available in the South West and in Manchester and Liverpool.
In Northern Ireland the charity Aware Defeat Depression has been awarded funding through the Promoting Mental Health Strategy to offer free courses during 2009-10 for people in Belfast.
Mental health first aid
Number to have taken courses
- England: 11,000
- Wales: 2,793
- Scotland: 27,000
- Northern Ireland: 16 places available for this year’s courses.
This article is published in the 25 February 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline First Aid fot the Mind