Mental health first aid can be considered a ground breaking public education program. This program can help ordinary individuals with proper training to identify, understand, and respond to signs of ill mental health.

Mental health first aid can be considered simply as extension of general first aid. The concept of first aid encompasses the assistance provided in a situation of a physical health crisis. It is disappointing to observe that while most countries recognise the concept of first aid for physical health; mental health first aid is still an unfamiliar concept for many.

Defining mental health first aid

According to Kitchener & Jorm, 2002, mental health first aid is defined as:

Mental health first aid is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis, until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis resolves.

Why do you need mental health first aid?

We commonly observe how people generally tend to ignore issues concerning their mental health. Most people developing mental health problems keep delaying seeking help or do not access professional help at all.

In such circumstances, a loved one or an acquaintance in the same social circle can extend help in this regard. A person familiar with mental health first aid will be informed about the options available for professional help. Such an individual can make a great difference to the society by offering appropriate assistance.

In the circumstances of a mental health crisis such as a person feeling suicidal, causing self-harm, suffering from a panic attack or from acute psychosis, a well informed individual with appropriate mental health first aid skills can recognise the symptoms and offer help to prevent further harm.

Mental health training offered

The extension of first aid training to include mental health first aid is a recent advancement. The first mental health first aid training course was developed in Australia by Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm in 2001. This training course has now been received by over 1% of the Australian adult population. Many studies have been conducted which show that mental health first aid training show better results with managing mental health crisis.

Some Mental health first aid strategies are taught in training programs developed by Mental Health First Aid TM (MHFA) Australia. This is a national non-profit health promotion charity focused on training and research.

How to give mental health first aid

1.  MHFA action plan ALGEE:

  • Approach, assess and assist with any crisis
  • Listen non-judgementally
  • Give support and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage other supports

2.  Notice harmful behaviours

The first thing that you need to notice when trying to help somebody is to assess for risk of suicide or harm. Some harmful behaviours maybe:

  • Threats to hurt or kill
  • Seeking access to hurt or kill
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
  • Feeling Hopeless
  • Acting Reckless or taking part in risky activities
  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, or society
  • Being agitated or angry
  • Dramatic mood swings

3.   Listen without appearing judgemental

The next step would be to listen to the problems faced by this person non-judgementally. This part will require both skill and patience. It is important that the suffering individual feels comfortable, respected and understood. A few set or verbal and non verbal steps learnt in these courses can help you in this part. These can be:

  • Open body posture
  • Eye contact
  • Listening strategies

4.  Reassurance and guidance about professional help

The next step would be to give reassurance and provide information and support about professional help. It is important for these individuals to reinforce that the mental illness is treatable. Mental health first aid teaches you to provide constant emotional support and practical help.

There are a variety of professionals who can help like doctors (primary care physicians or psychiatrists), social workers, counsellors and therapists. Professional help can he available in the form of talk therapies, medications, counselling or other professional therapies.

5.   Encourage self-help

While professional help is required by most individuals, self help can also play a big role in the recovery process. This is why individuals practicing mental health first aid should encourage strategies like:

  • Exercise
  • Relaxation and Meditation
  • Participating in peer support groups
  • Self-help books based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Engaging with family, friends, faith, and other social networks

How to train to give mental health first aid

Any individual who wishes to train in mental health first aid can register in a course with mental health first Aid (MHFA). These courses are catered to people coming from all age groups and walks of life.

1.   Standard 12 hour mental health first aid course

If you are interested in developing a basic understanding of mental health first aid then you can join this. This course teaches adults over 18 years of age about how to provide initial support to adults who are suffering from a mental health crisis or developing a mental illness. This course covers the training imparted to those professionals who wish to attend this course for continued professional development within their field. This course covers:

  • Developing mental health problems like depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance misuse
  • Mental health crisis situations like suicidal thoughts and behaviours, Non-suicidal, self-injury (sometimes called self-harm), panic attack, after a traumatic event, severe psychotic states, severe effects of alcohol and drugs and aggressive behaviours

The participants of this standard course will learn about the signs and symptoms of these mental health problems, where to get help from and what sort of help has been proven to be most effective by research.

This course has now been endorsed for continued professional development (CPD) for some fields as well.

2.   Youth Mental Health First Aid Course 

This course is for adults working or living with adolescents (between 12 and 18 years). This course is particularly appropriate for parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers. The course participants will be able to learn about adolescent development, the signs and symptoms of common mental health problems faced by young people and what kind of mental health help has proven to be effective through research. This course will cover:

  • Developing mental health problems like depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders and substance misuse
  • Mental health crisis situations like suicidal thoughts and behaviours, non-suicidal self-injury (sometimes called self-harm), panic attacks, traumatic events, acute effects of drug or alcohol use and severe psychotic states

There are also two more courses designed for individuals working with aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those working with Vietnamese communities in Australia.

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