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The role of the mental health first aider

Date published

This blog by Paola Casagrande describes the mental health first aider and how to take on this role.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. The WHO recognises mental health as a basic human right and crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.

Credit: World Health Organisation

Mental health in the workplace

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2021-2022 the UK lost 17 million working days to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Furthermore, an estimated 914000 workers suffered with mental ill-health relating to their work, accounting for half (51%) of all work-related ill-health cases (1.8 million) for the year.

One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health issue at some point. Work can aggravate pre-existing conditions, and problems at work can bring on symptoms or make their effects worse.

Whether work is causing the health issue or aggravating it, employers have a duty of care legal responsibility to their employees under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. This means employers must support employees’ physical and mental health, safety and wellbeing so far as is reasonably practicable.

To comply with this legal duty, employers are required to undertake a risk assessment and report on any workplace factors which may contribute to or exacerbate employees' poor mental health. Employers are also legally required to take appropriate steps to mitigate these risks and may have further legal requirements to make reasonable adjustments under equalities legislation.

The Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 require employers to provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work. These Regulations apply to all workplaces including those with less than five employees and to the self-employed. What is 'adequate and appropriate' will depend on the circumstances in the workplace. Currently this requirement relates to physical first aid but there is not a legal requirement for mental health first aid training.

In 2021 Conservative MP Dean Russell proposed a Bill which would impose a legal requirement on employers to provide mental health first aid training as part of their physical first aid training. At the time, 200,000 signatures were raised through the "Where's Your Head At?" campaign which sought to make it a legal requirement for all workplaces to have a mental health first aider. However, the 2021 Bill failed to go further. In January 2023, Mr Russell re-introduced the Bill, which is currently at its first reading in the House of Commons.

Credit: MHFA Enlgand

Mental health first aiders’ role

Mental health first aiders (MHFAs) provide initial support and assistance to individuals experiencing mental health challenges or crises. MHFAs also play a crucial role in promoting mental health awareness, reducing stigma, and fostering a supportive environment for individuals experiencing mental health challenges.

MHFAs are trained individuals who can recognize the signs and symptoms of common mental health problems and provide appropriate support until professional help is available. It is important to note that MHFAs are not mental health professionals, but rather individuals trained to provide the initial support and help bridge the gap until professional help can be accessed.

Recognising signs and symptoms

MHFAs are trained to identify signs of common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Through their training and experience they learn to observe behavioural and emotional changes in individuals that may indicate a mental health problem. By identifying these signs early on, they can intervene and provide support, potentially preventing the situation from worsening.

Providing initial assistance

MHFAs are equipped with knowledge and skills to offer immediate support to individuals in distress. This support may involve active listening, providing a safe and non-judgmental space for the person to talk, and offering empathy and reassurance. In crisis situations, MHFAs can provide essential support until professional help arrives. They are trained to assess risks, ensure the safety of the person in crisis, and guide them towards appropriate assistance.

Encouraging professional help

MHFAs promote seeking professional help and provide information about available resources, such as mental health services, helplines, and support groups. They can help individuals to access relevant information and offer suggestions for self-care strategies.

Maintaining confidentiality and boundaries

MHFAs understand the importance of confidentiality and respect the privacy of the individuals they assist. They maintain appropriate boundaries and do not disclose personal information without consent, except in situations where there is a risk of harm.

Reduce stigma and promote wellbeing

MHFAs help reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems by promoting understanding, empathy, and acceptance. They create safe spaces where individuals can openly discuss their concerns and seek help without fear of judgment.

The MHFA’s role is not only to be available and reactive in times of crises. MHFAs also overall promote mental wellbeing. They can raise awareness of self-care strategies, stress management techniques and the importance of seeking help when needed.

How to become a Mental Health First Aider

To become a Mental Health First Aider there are many accredited courses available, delivered online and in-person. The benefit of having mental health first aiders in the workplace is significant as they can create a supportive work environment, increase awareness about mental health, and assist colleagues in need. This can lead to improved employee well-being, productivity, and reduced absenteeism.


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