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Shonette Laffy


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Mental health first aiders – yay or nay?


I've just read through this article on the BBC about mental health first aiders,  it's a really nice idea to have a go-to person in an office, but thought I'd gauge the opinion on here - is it better to train up employees to deal with any mental health problems in the workplace, or is it better to have a system of referral to professionals such as councellors etc?

Curious to hear if any of you have come across a similar system and how it was being received by employees, managers etc. What are your thoughts?

16 Responses

  1. I have a different take on
    I have a different take on this-
    1. I just think that it is a bit sad that we revert to having a paid(?), trained and qualified (?) professional to step in and take what is, in my opinion, the role of a decent human being/workmate/colleague/team-mate.

    2. It seems ironic that this originated in Australia- the nation that gave us Crocodile Dundee and his retort, when told that someone needed to discuss a problem with their shrink, ask “What? Hasn’t she got any mates?”

    3. It almost seems a furtherance of the ‘not MY responsibility’ and ‘THEY should do something’ attitude that is so insidious these days.

    4. If you see a co-worker struggling, go and offer a friendly shoulder- a bit of a breather- a supportive smile….if it is a bigger issue than ‘normal’ human decency can cope with then suggest they seek professional help. That’s great.

    5.But what about the ‘formal responsibility’ of the mental health first aider- a person has a bit of a wobble and suddenly there is an obligation upon the MHFA to take some sort of action….if they don’t and the person ends up say signed off with stress (or worse) is the MHFA going to get sued and held liable in the same way that flesh and blood first aiders can be?

    Blimey, I must be stressed to have had such a strong response- where is my MHFA? and can they sign me off sick?

    1. It’s a good point – I think
      It’s a good point – I think it’s the responsibility of everyone to ensure that colleagues are supported and listened to when they are struggling, although I do also think that having a dedicated person who you know is separate/impartial and able to respect confidentiality would be more appealing in more severe cases – one of the biggest barriers with dealing with mental health issues in the workplace is getting employees to feel at ease talking about their problems, and I think that even in a very open and supportive workplace many people would want to keep their issues private, and not necessarily discuss with their colleagues.

    2. In many companies the problem
      In many companies the problem for a ‘decent human being/workmate/… is tied into why mental health has become such an issue, time versus workload. Employers are reducing staff levels, to reduce costs, so now 1 person might be doing the work of three or more. Already having to work extra hours just to keep pace with their current workload most people can’t take half an hour, or even ten minutes, out to talk to a colleague who is struggling. To do so would cause them to miss a deadline, delay a project or fail a performance goal. This same pressure is probably what caused the colleague to struggle in the first place.

  2. we have a Healthy Minds line
    we have a Healthy Minds line at work that people can call and talk to someone in confidence which I think is an interesting point because, in my experience, people don’t always want someone they know and they work with to get involved and would prefer it to be kept private. If everyone knows who the MHFA’s are and you are seen sitting with them, there may be a concern that people might judge you on that.
    We also went down the route of offering Mindfulness sessions where we helped people to practice mindfulness. We trained a group of Mindfulness advocates and people were able to book onto a session to learn more about it.

    1. These sound like good ideas –
      These sound like good ideas – as much as it’s important to have people you’re close to and can confide in at work, not everyone wants to have that in the workplace, and even if they do, some issues are more personal and require that anonymity and distance. How has the Healthy Minds line been received? Are the people on the line volunteers from within the company or an outside organisation?

  3. Clive raises a frightening
    Clive raises a frightening possibility for the future with his comment “If everyone knows who the MHFA’s are and you are seen sitting with them, there may be a concern that people might judge you on that.”

    “MHFA wins £3m in compensation for workplace stress.
    Mr A claimed that he was isolated and no one at work would talk to him since he became the company’s MHFA. This led to long term sickness and he is now unable to work.”

    1. That is not that dissimilar
      That is not that dissimilar to the situation most union reps find themselves in. Members want to talk to their union rep about problems, but generally don’t want to be seen talking to their union rep.

      Any rep with a modicum of experience gets good at apparently random chats with colleagues. Actually a lot of union reps are probably already fulfilling a key part of the role of these MHFA, being someone a colleague can talk to in confidence.

      I’m reminded of a passage in a Sci-Fi novel I read some years ago. One of the two main characters was talking to the bar tender in a bar about his situation (as apparently happens) and discovers that the bar tender is a fully trained and licensed counsellor. The theory being that since people will unload their problems to a bar tender it would make sense to employ people who might be able to help in bars. Perhaps it would make sense for employers who recognise a union to support the union in developing the skills of their reps to support colleagues who are facing mental health challenges?

  4. Ruth from Twitter says:
    Ruth from Twitter says:
    “I think a nominated person who can deal with panic attacks etc might be useful”

    1. This is a good point. You
      This is a good point. You need people who are not only in charge of changing culture on mental health etc, but also dealing with acute instances in a positive, compassionate way. Maybe they’re the same person, maybe not.

  5. I read the original post and
    I read the original post and subsequent replies with great interest. The purpose of MHFA is very similar to that of a ‘First Aider’ in that they are the first port of call if someone is feeling distressed/anxious/depressed. If someone in the workplace faints/cuts themselves/breaks an ankle, the First Aider would be called, they would administer First Aid during which time an ambulance would be called if necessary, or alternatively the individual would be advised to see their GP or medical professional. They would not be expected to stitch a cut, plaster an ankle etc, that would be left to the experts. The same applies to MHFA, they are the first port of call but they would also suggest intervention by a professional person. They are not counsellors (unless they have undergone counselling training which would be completely separate and not undertaken as part of being a MHFA) and this is made very clear on the training course. It would always be appropriate to suggest to the individual they seek professional help through their GP, IAPT, or as one of the respondees has mentioned, organisational occupational health HelpLines which offer a fixed number of counselling appointments via the telephone. Let’s not forget the words ‘First Aid’ it is the initial support the distressed person needs.
    MHFA are trained to use a specific model (very similar to First Aiders) to assess a situation and to give them guidelines to work within.
    The comment regarding will the MHFA be sued the same way a First Aider may be sued isn’t helpful. As a First Aid Instructor and a MHFA Instructor, these comments are not helpful. It is extremely rare (and this is made explicit when teaching First Aid) that someone sues a First Aider, if they did then I am sure the court would deal with this appropriately, but it rarely happens.

    A very large Public Sector organisation is now getting employees trained up to be MHFA Instructors so more staff can be trained around how to offer support to someone who is struggling. For anyone who has experienced any mental ill health, the opportunity to have someone with the skills to offer that initial support when everything seems to be so difficult is invaluable. This and a robust and supportive wellbeing strategy and policy can only be seen as a positive to any workplace.

    The whole “what if a person if seen talking to the MHFA” demonstrates just how far we have to go in terms of breaking the stigma around mental health.
    Some organisations have a ‘wellbeing room’ where individuals who are feeling anxious or stressed can go and have some time out if things are getting on top of them. I have seen this approach work extremely well in several organisations and progressive SLT are very supportive of this initiative.
    The more we speak out about mental health and the sooner we start to accept that mental ill health is nothing to be ashamed of the easier it will be for those who are suffering. The opportunity to have someone with the skills and knowledge to offer empathetic and compassionate support, based on a tried and tested model should be something all organisations offer and buy in to. Whether the organisation chooses to pay individuals who undertake the role is the same as for First Aiders, that is up to the organisation.
    Perhaps further investigation into the role of a MHFA, what is involved in the training and how it will equip the learner with skills/knowledge and tools would be appropriate for anyone who doesn’t fully understand the role.


    1. Hi Liz, great post and very
      Hi Liz, great post and very insightful thanks for the update. A couple of points from me. Firstly, what I don’t quite understand is how is a MHFA engaged?
      If it’s an old style first aider; someone generally calls for the first aider to attend on behalf of the person because it’s clear there is an issue -in other words the incident is usually visible.
      In the case of mental health, there may be signs but it’s not always visible so presumably the individual has to engage the MHFA personally. Also, if someone else calls to ask a MHFA to attend to another person that presents another challenge with confidentiality and being wary that it’s just another persons view rather than that of the individual. Just wondered how that works please?
      The other thing is that I made the comment about the stigma around being seen with a MHFA based on my experience. I am a coach and a mindfulness advocate (not a counsellor) and I often talk to people who would benefit from talking to a professional and do advise people to take that step. Often they are reluctant either because there is a cultural apathy to mental health or a personal stigma about it (not an organisational one). I think you are right to say that things need to change but despite us as an organisation heavily promoting mental well-being there is still a reluctance because of the way the individual feels. So I think that promoting mental well-being organisationally is great but often is not enough, what are you thoughts on that point please?

      1. Hi Clive
        Hi Clive
        Apologies for the delay in responding. Really interesting questions which made me ponder. I guess my first thought would be it depends on the context where the MHFA is being engaged. We are talking about this in a work context but of course MHFA could be engaged outside of the workplace, so I think that’s the first thing to consider. However in the work context it may be that someone is presenting with signs that you or a colleague may be concerned about. If someone was distressed, crying, stressed, anxious we may be called to talk to that person and reassure them. If it was someone who was on danger of harming themselves then we have techniques we can use to support that person and help them until professional help can be sought.
        If someone wasn’t showing signs then I’m not sure how the MHFA would be engaged.
        I think this could link in with your second point though, in that some people still see poor mental health as something to be ashamed and embarrassed about. I know of people who would rather have a GP sign them off with a ‘viral infection’ as opposed to having ‘depression/anxiety/stress’ on the Fit Note. So I guess we continue to try and keep the topic in the public domain and encourage people to talk about their experiences until mental illness is regarded with the same compassion as physical illness. Conversations, wellbeing groups, leaders and line managers treating people with dignity and compassion (I’m a firm believer in line managers receiving mental health awareness training) WRAPs being introduced to reduce the stigma for those who may experience recurring episodes, wellbeing days, can all help. Also linking in with physical illness or issues such as weight/drink etc. People who may be drinking frequently may experience depression so looking beyond ‘depression’ and potentially at causes may also help to encourage conversations. Look at how busy we are on a day to day basis, how many people may be caring for children/grandchildren/parents and they may be feeling the pressure so groups to talk about their experiences may help as a preventative measure.
        I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but I think we have come a long way over the past 10 years. Who knows where we may be in 2026?
        Blimey, that was an epic post wasn’t it. I hope it helps, but feel free to ask away, it’s a topic I’m very passionate about 🙂
        And great to hear you are a Mindfulness advocate, that’s brilliant!


        ps WRAP – Wellness Recovery Action Plan

        1. Thanks Liz, so if the MHFA
          Thanks Liz, so if the MHFA can be engaged outside of work, is it a permanent role? If not, how does that work practically? Do you have to ask for permission to do anything that requires travel outside of work or are you empowered to put the day job to one side and undertake MHFA duties? I agree that it’s massively important but just wondered what the practicalities are in balancing the day job with the MHFA work.

          1. Hi Clive, the role is very
            Hi Clive, the role is very much akin to that of a First Aider, so I have the tools and knowledge to support someone during the working day but also if I was out and about and saw someone experiencing distress.
            In the work context I would expect to put the work to one side and support the person having difficulty, I have never found this has had a massive impacty on my work to be honest, the same way as being a First Aider didn’t. I think if you asked anyone who was a MHFA or a First Aider then the impact on their work would be minimal (hopefully). I hope tjhis helps, but please ask away if you have any more questions, more than happy to respond 🙂


    2. Liz, you say that the
      Liz, you say that the ‘comment’ regarding the suing of a MHFA is ‘unhelpful’–however if you look more closely the ‘comment’ was a question….you have answered it so it should therefore be said that the question was helpful as it gave you the opportunity to reply.

      1. Hi Russ,
        Hi Russ,

        Ah, but if I hadn’t responded, as we live in an incredibly litigious society, potential volunteers to undertake either a MHFA role or First Aider role may be reluctant to grasp the nettle.

        However, I am glad my response has helped 🙂


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Shonette Laffy

Deputy Editor

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