Mental health first aid skills need updating, just like physical first aid

Refresher courses can help improve employees' confidence and knowledge, leading to a mentally healthier workforce, says Simon Blake

For some time, employers have been advised to ensure their physical first aiders are competent and maintain their skills. Like any element of health and safety, best practice first aid skills will shift and evolve as medical science does. A physical first aid certificate for the workplace is only valid for three years, after which the first aider must requalify to be considered eligible to practise their role. 

After last year’s inclusion of ‘mental health trained first aiders’ in the HSE’s first aid needs assessment for employers, it stands to reason that employers should apply a similar rationale for mental health first aid. This is why Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has launched a refresher course. The training course will empower mental health first aiders and mental health first aid champions by giving them the confidence and knowledge to perform their role safely and effectively. 

Confidence is key with first aid support for both physical and mental health. ‘I didn’t want to say the wrong thing’ is regularly cited as a reason for not approaching someone who is showing signs of mental ill-health. And as we know, early intervention can greatly increase the chances of a timely recovery for someone who is experiencing a mental health issue. There is nothing that inspires confidence more than regular practice. 

With employers losing up to £42bn and 300,000 people falling out of work each year because of mental illness, workplace leaders have both a moral and a business incentive to build a long-term plan to support the mental health of their workforce. The refresher course is one way employers, which have adopted MHFA England training, can renew their commitment to treating mental health equally to physical health. It gives them the reassurance that their mental health first aiders and champions are up to date with the latest guidance and are confident practising their role safely. 

Mental health training should be one part of any employer’s strategic approach to organisational wellbeing and, like any long-term business strategy, should be continually stimulated and reinforced to ensure it has a sustained impact. Purposeful roles, effective job design, good management support and creating a workplace where everyone can thrive are also critical to success.

In May this year, MHFA England called on all employers to sign the ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ workplace manifesto – a mission statement for a mentally healthier working world. In just six months, nearly 500 employers and 70 MPs from across the parties have pledged their support. 

Last month, Business in the Community published its Mental Health at Work 2019 Report. It revealed that 39 per cent of employees have experienced poor mental health because of work, or where work was a contributing factor, in the past year. This figure was 36 per cent in 2017 and 2018 – showing movement in the wrong direction.

The report highlights how important it is for organisations to continue to foster a culture that protects and enhances mental health and wellbeing for their entire workforces. It calls on businesses to achieve this by creating good work that enhances mental health, for everyone; acknowledging and supporting poor mental health, whatever the cause; and publicly reporting their wellbeing performance. 

At MHFA England we have trained hundreds of thousands of people in England in mental health awareness and skills, including mental health first aid. We know our training works. It sits on a uniquely strong evidence base of more than 70 studies that consistently show that MHFA training improves mental health awareness, knowledge and confidence in how to support a person experiencing mental ill-health.  

Whether you have been a mental health first aider for 10 years or 10 minutes, we want those who have received our training to be as confident, comfortable and effective in their role as possible.

Simon Blake OBE is chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England