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Is Mental Health First Aid the answer? Depends on the question.

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A lot of employers are introducing “Mental Health First Aid” (MHFA) training in the workplace. This involves trained Mental Health First Aiders, operating in a similar way to standard First Aiders.

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Given the importance of dealing with mental health issues in the workplace and the increasing popularity of this approach, how should unions be responding? Is it basically employers just passing the responsibilities on to workers for their own failures to deal with mental health issues or is it a genuine solution to a serious problem? Is the Government support for MHFA simply a sticking plaster over the gaping wound that is mental health support in this country where people have to wait months for a referral and even then are often unable to access appropriate support and help or a big leap forward in dealing with the issue?

MHFA has been around for almost 20 years but its popularity has grown in the last few years with many employers seeking to train a number of staff using the standard 2-day course. It is a comprehensive and useful course and many people who have been on it feel that they get a much deeper understanding of the issues and are more knowledgeable and supportive because of the training.

However, MHFA is not a substitute for preventing anxiety and depression caused by work-related stress, or is it a substitute for professional support. Any employer that thinks they can deal with mental health concerns just by introducing a few MHFAiders are very much mistaken. After all traditional first aiders are not a substitute for good prevention, occupational health provision and the NHS.

I reckon that MHFAiders can be a really useful resource in the workplace but it is only a small part of what employers should be doing. Any employer who wants to address mental health issues in the workplace needs to look much wider than MHFA, and that is best done in co-operation with the union.  Public Health England, along with Business in the Community have produced a toolkit for employers on what they should do.

 A good policy will include:

  • High level commitment to challenging the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.
  • A recruitment policy that does not discriminate against those with a mental health conditions.
  • A review of sickness absence policies to ensure that they do not discriminate against those with mental health conditions.
  • Early access to occupational health services.
  • Training all staff on mental health (ideally jointly with the union).
  • Separate mental health awareness training for all line managers.
  • The provision of an Employee Assistance programme.
  • Strong anti-bullying and harassment procedures.
  • A stress management policy.
  • If there are MHFAiders, a system of support for them, including regular meetings.

Unions clearly must be involved both in working with their employer around mental health and supporting members with mental health problems, but MHFA is unlikely to be the most suitable training for trade union representatives. MHFA is mainly about signposting individuals which is really important, but the role of unions is also to try to resolve any workplace issues that could be contributing to a person’s mental health problems or seeking necessary adjustments if required. They also have a role in challenging any stigma or discrimination. That is why Mental Health Awareness training is often more appropriate as there is much more emphasis on prevention. The TUC has a workbook that covers many of the issues.

For more on Mental Health First Aid, including a summary of what it entails and an outline of some of the limitations, you can read my article in the latest issue of Hazards Magazine.

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