The idea of first aid has been around for a very long time – we have classical greek pottery from 2500 years ago showing soldiers bandaging battle wounds. And while previously, it might have been specifically a job for a doctor or healer, in the last century, there’s been a slow movement towards everyone having the skills and know-how to intervene if someone nearby becomes seriously ill or injured. However, mental health has long taken a back seat to physical health. The idea of formal training in mental health first aid – allowing bystanders to competently provide assistance to someone in a mental health crisis – is very recent. Longevity Live Paid Content.
So what exactly is Mental Health First Aid training? How did it start, how does it work, and how hard is it to learn? Let’s take a moment to consider what, in the last 20 years, has become a worldwide project for many nations and governments.
History of Mental Health First Aid
The idea of assisting someone in a mental crisis is not a new one. People have been consoling distraught friends and family for thousands of years, and psychologists and professional counselors have existed for a long time. But for a very long time, this was either done on an amateur basis or generally left to professional counselors.
Mental Health First Aid takes the same principle as conventional first aid – providing a large section of the population with specific training to respond to a crisis – and applies that concept to mental health. It gives members of the general public a specific toolkit of skills to step in and assist in a crisis until the situation can be resolved or professional assistance can be brought in.
The idea of Mental Health First Aid training started in Australia back in 2000 – at the start of the 21st century – by Betty Kitchener (a professional teacher, counselor, and nurse) and her partner Anthony Jorm, a psychologist and professional researcher. The intention was to provide people with professional-level training in how to respond to a mental health emergency.
Since then, their program has been adopted in countries such as Denmark, Wales, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bermuda, Scotland, Malta, Finland, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore, England, Switzerland, Nepal, the United States, Canada, Portugal, China, France, India, Japan, Northern Ireland, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Ireland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand.
By 2019, more than 3 million people worldwide had received Mental Health First Aid training, and many countries have committed to increasing these numbers.
What conditions might require mental health first aid?
Mental Health First Aid could be needed in any situation where someone is suffering a mental health crisis – where their mental health could be putting them or those around them at potential risk. This could mean the person is:
- At risk of causing self-harm
- Unusually aggressive
- Suffering a panic attack
- Overwhelmed by traumatic events
- Considering suicide
- Suffering from a severe psychotic state
- Under the effects of alcohol or other drugs
It can also be valuable in less urgent circumstances where the person is still negatively affected by their state of mental health. This could include issues such as; anxiety, depression, substance abuse, gambling issues, psychosis, or eating disorders.
Recognizing signs of Mental Health issues
A key part of caring for someone with mental health issues is recognizing the signs of poor mental health or a potential crisis. Some of the more common signs that someone’s mental health may not be 100% could include:
- Risky or self-destructive behavior
- Unusual or dramatic changes in mood
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Troubles with sleeping
- Self-harming behavior
- Unusual changes in behavior or emotional state (for more than two weeks)
- Strange or unusual thoughts
- Significant weight loss, weight gain, or changes in appetite
- Thinking or talking about suicide
- Significantly lowered performance at work or school
- Acting restless or agitated
- Lethargy, or an unusual reduction in daily activity
- Overlooking self-care (such as hygiene and eating properly)
- Unusually disorganized behaviour
- Hallucinations – seeing things that aren’t actually there
- Problems with substance abuse
- A sense of worthlessness or guilt
- Acting confused or disorientated
- Unusual emotional outbursts
- Acting unusually withdrawn or quiet
If you see someone exhibiting some of these symptoms – particularly several of them at the same time – you might want to check on them to see if they’re OK, or if Mental Health First Aid might be needed. Only a medical professional can officially diagnose a mental illness. However, by keeping an eye out for the signs, you may be able to notice when someone around you isn’t doing too well and possibly get them the help they might need.
How to approach the person
Starting a conversation about someone’s mental health should always be done with caution and sensitivity. You should choose a time and place carefully. For examples, choose somewhere non-threatening where you have the time and space to talk about things without getting interrupted.
If the person is reluctant to talk to you, you should respect that. But let them know you’re willing to listen if they need it, and encourage them to talk to someone else they trust.
If they are willing to talk, it’s important that the person understands you care and you’re genuinely looking out for their welfare. When explaining what you’ve observed, speak from your perspective – “I’ve noticed that…” or “I’m worried that…” rather than trying to TELL the person what’s wrong with them. Listen to their side of things, and respect if they have a different perspective on the warning signs you’ve observed. They might not fully understand the problem, but they need to know you’re listening.
Don’t blame the person for the problems they might be going through, and try to be positive – give them hope things can be better. After you’ve talked, remember to follow up on the discussion – find appropriate resources, information or help if the person needs them. And remember to check in on the person later – your job isn’t done just because the conversation is over.
Some things to avoid
There are common mistakes people make when trying to help someone with mental health issues, which are worth bearing in mind to avoid doing more harm than good.
It’s important not to belittle or trivialize their problems or the feelings they’re experiencing. Don’t tell them to “just get over it” or “snap out of it” – working through mental health issues isn’t just a matter of “getting it together”, or smiling and carrying on. Don’t act condescending, hostile, or sarcastic, and don’t blame them for what they’re experiencing. Even if their condition is resulting in bad behaviors, poor mental health is not a choice or a weakness.
Also, don’t try and take on more responsibility than you should – don’t get over-involved or overprotective of the person. Be there for the person, but remember it’s not your responsibility to solve their problems or “cure” them. You’re here to help.
Helping them to get help
It’s a good idea to encourage the person to seek out more specialized help – especially if the person’s problems are serious. If the person is open to seeking out professional assistance, a great place to start is by talking to a GP who can help them talk through their options.
If they’re reluctant to take that step, encourage them to call a support line or contact an online mental health service. Websites like mentalhealth.gov in the US, Beyond Blue, or Lifeline in Australia can be excellent sources of information and can direct people to a range of vital services and support lines if needed.
Encourage the person that is seeking out help is a smart move and nothing to be ashamed of.
What if someone is suicidal?
If there are indications that someone is contemplating suicide, it makes the situation particularly critical – you should always take it seriously if someone’s thoughts or actions seem suicidal.
If you think someone might be suicidal, you should talk to them about it. You don’t need to go in unprepared – you can call a suicide support line for advice about how to talk to someone about it. When you have a conversation, ask them directly if it’s something they’re considering. If you believe they may be suicidal, don’t leave them alone.
You can also check out Mental Health First Aid Australia’s website for their fact sheet on Suicidal Thoughts & Behaviours to get more information.
Encourage the person to get professional help. Support lines like the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in the US, the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), Lifeline (13 11 14), or MensLine (1300 78 99 78) in Australia are great resources for help and advice.
Be better prepared
While an article like this can give you some good general guidelines about helping someone with a mental health issue, it’s a poor alternative to proper training in Mental Health First Aid. Online blogs can give you the basics on a wide range of issues, but there’s only so much information you can fit into an online article.
Fortunately, Mental Health First Aid as a course is now available in a growing number of countries and locations. Many of these countries (including the US and England) have also made substantial commitments to promoting and increasing the availability of this training, meaning you’ll soon be able to take a Mental Health First Aid course whether you’re in central London, rural Wisconsin, or relaxing on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. The course only takes two days of in-class time and costs less than you’d expect.
Why not see if there’s a course available in your area? Don’t be left wondering what to say or how to help. Get trained, so you’ll know how to help in a crisis.
Who is the author?
Lochy Cupit is a published author, professional content writer, content researcher, multimedia & web developer, youth worker, actor, radio presenter, podcaster, and creative arts specialist. He currently works as a content writer for a professional first-aid training organization.
He holds bachelor’s degrees in computer science and multimedia, a masters in creative writing, and a graduate diploma in theology – because “why study just one thing”? He lives in Adelaide with his wife and two highly energetic boys.