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An interview with HRW’s Mental Health First Aid team

14.10.2022

This month marks the celebration of World Mental Health Day. In recognition, we sat down with two members of the HRW team, Abi Graham (Research Manager) and Paul Tinworth (Research Director), to discuss their passion for this topic, and their learnings from being trained as in-house Mental Health First Aiders. 

Hi both! We’ll start things off by asking why did you want to become a Mental Health First Aider? 

Abi: For me, I remember clearly what it was like working as a junior member of the team and adjusting to the pressures of the role and working life: it can be a big transition from university (where you can sort of do whatever you want!) to a full-time job with multiple strict deadlines, intense working with others, and the challenges of juggling many responsibilities. My aim was to apply my learnings from Mental Health First Aid to better help and support your junior workforce and graduates. 

I’m also aware of the stigma surrounding mental health through family, friends, and experiences at uni- so it felt like a really important thing for me to do.  

Paul: From my perspective, it’s something I’ve been interested in for quite a long time. Having had my own experiences with mental health challenges in my late teens, and coming out the other side, it made me want to try and help anybody that ends up similar circumstances. Even though it was a difficult time for me, I feel like I came out of it a stronger person- and wanting to help others in any small way I can. 

Why is Mental Health First Aid important for the workplace? 

Paul: It’s not unique to our industry, but the prevalence of people experiencing mental health issues is so much higher than you think- so it’s very important to have people on the team that are aware of some of the signs that others might be struggling. It’s important for our team to know there is someone to reach out to as a first point of contact if they want to. 

I’d imagine the hardest thing is to reach out in the first place, so it’s great that we have a large team of MH First Aiders with a range of personalities- so hopefully there’s enough variety in who we are that people feel comfortable reaching out to at least one of us in the first instance.  

Our role is not to be councillors, but more to be someone to listen and signpost potential resources for anyone who is struggling.  

Abi: The training also focused on identifying potential crisis moments over the phone – this is important because we work remotely so much these days. It might be easier to hide behind the camera and conceal struggles from others- so being able to recognise this is key. We are also a neutral point of contact- people may not want to approach their manager, so by working together as a large team we can keep an eye on the wider groups’ wellbeing and look for these signs. 

What were some of the highlights of what you learned on the Mental Health Frist Aid course?  

Paul: We focused on the different types of mental health issues that people might experience (from anxiety to depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar, OCD and eating disorders) and explored examples of how these may manifest. We examined a step-wise approach on how to support somebody experiencing a mental health problem- assessing the situation and then listening to the individual.  

Abi: We also covered how to offer further support and encourage others to see a professional as needed. This is an important point- we are not professional psychiatrists, psychologists, or counsellors, but rather we’re there to listen. We’re there to provide encouragement. We’re there to point people in the right direction and be supportive tool to get them the input that they need from the right place. 

Was there anything that surprised or shocked you in the training sessions you attended? 

Abi: I think it was the stats. I was shocked to hear about the rates of suicide in young males; and the proportion of healthcare spending that goes towards mental health. Overall learning about the prevalence of these conditions really opened my eyes. 

Paul: Yeah, absolutely- it’s a lot more common than you do you realize. And yet it’s something that lots of us still feel uncomfortable discussing. 

Is there anything that you’ve changed in your behaviour, either inside or out of work since doing this course? 

Abi: I think the biggest thing is probably listening. If someone is having a crisis, sometimes the best thing you can do is just listen. You don’t have to always just give advice, and that’s OK. We took part in an exercise where we paired up and we told each other problems, and just listened and gave encouragement for them to keep talking. That’s actually is quite unnatural (well, for me anyway!)- we instinctively try to solve issues in front of us. 

Paul: I think that’s really important, and it is quite a change for some of us. When someone is in trouble, we want to try correct the situation for them and offer advice. But that isn’t always appropriate. Often, people aren’t even looking for that. They just want to know that they’re being heard and they’re allowed share how they’re feeling – and that’s enough. 

How do you hope that attitudes and behaviours around mental health might evolve in the future? 

Paul: We’re seeing this happen already, but I think the continuing trend towards normalising people talking about mental health more openly and not feeling it is something we have to be secretive about is so important. I completely understand the desire for privacy, but the more people talk about things openly, the more you tend to find people come forward to say, “oh, actually I went through that as well”. When you find someone that’s had that shared experience that can be really powerful and really helpful.  

Abi: I completely agree. This helps with debunking the stigma surrounding these issues, and I want that to change in the future. During the training, we were all very open ourselves and I think it helped us personally learn how to feel comfortable discussing our different experiences. That was really interesting as around three quarters of the group had their own experiences with mental health challenges- all completely different things as well!   

Normalising these experiences in the workplace will be essential. We should be able to treat bad days with our mental health the same way as our physical health – if you’re not feeling great mentally, taking the time to recover and work on this should be fairly accepted and understood. Our health is both physical and mental. 

Paul: It’s worth also learning to recognise that with mental health it’s not necessarily a straight line to improvement. Recovery is complicated, there’s going to be times when they’re better, there’s going be times when they’re struggling. We need to accept and accommodate the fact that recovering from a mental health condition is a journey.  

Abi: If someone having a low day, they might get labelled “moody”, so fostering an environment where we have greater understanding is key- just because someone is quiet doesn’t mean that they’re disengaged- they may be going through something and need our help at this time. 

Paul: Our aim is to make sure our learnings from Mental Health First Aid are baked into our company’s values- and not just a tick box exercise. 

By Catherine Harwood, Abigail Graham and Paul Tinworth
       

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