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The most important part of mental health first aid is listenting. Image: Getty Images.
The most important part of mental health first aid is listenting. Image: Getty Images.

PartnersApril 30, 2020

Mental health first aid could be just what our country needs

The most important part of mental health first aid is listenting. Image: Getty Images.
The most important part of mental health first aid is listenting. Image: Getty Images.

First aid training could be a crucial step in our fight for better mental health in New Zealand. Emily Writes looks into what it means to be a “mental health first aider” in the workplace.

Mental health gym, wellness spectrum, personal transformation, and theatre-making to support people through life transitions – it sounds like horseshit, I know. But mental health first aid training might be the way we can turn this country’s lack of understanding of mental health on its head.

It’s easy to roll your eyes when you hear Sarah Tuck start to describe CoLiberate, the “mental health gym” she started with friend and co-director Bop Murdoch. But as she explains the way it works, those doubts quickly fade.

Mental health isn’t just about distress, Tuck says. “There’s a whole continuum of wellness experiences. On any given day you can be thriving or doing OK even all the way to having moments of distress and we believe in any given moment you can be anywhere on the wellness continuum.”

“You don’t have to be at a distress or crisis level to engage in discussions on your mental health.”

“There’s a real binary thinking around mental health – you’re either mentally unwell or you’re not. But the continuum of human experience proves it’s not that black or white. There’s a huge grey area,” she says.

CoLiberate co-founder Sarah Tuck
CoLiberate co-founder Sarah Tuck

CoLiberate provides a range of mental health first aid training to help organisations look after the wellbeing of their staff. Their support is built on using a conversational framework to help gauge how someone is at a moment in time. It’s designed to find out what they need in that specific moment to help them feel better or refer them on to professional support, counselling, therapy or even contacting emergency services if they’re in severe emotional distress.

“I think a lot of people think support looks like calling 111 or telling someone to get their nails done. That might be support for someone but support looks wildly different for everyone. It’s actually about knowing the way to engage someone to work out what they really need.”

There’s no government funding for support like this. CoLiberate is a social enterprise, privately funded by providing mental health first aid training which is then fed back into providing the courses for those who can’t afford it.

In terms of physical first aid, you don’t have to be a heart surgeon to get somebody to the hospital – you just need to know how to recognise the signs. You’re that in-between and it’s a really important place to be. Mental health first aid helps provide that same bridge, says Tuck.

“You don’t need a seven-year degree to support someone or ask them how they are. It’s really important that we de-expertise these conversations and leave the professionals and experts to do their huge and valuable role. But to engage you don’t have to have that level of expertise – it can be a barrier.”

Tuck once felt afraid to talk about mental health, to ask someone if they needed support. Like many of us, she thought she might say the wrong thing. But after the training that all changed.

The training covers how to recognise signs of distress and ask the person in need what support looks like. Listening skills are crucial and attendees are given a clear framework to have a guided conversation.

Mental health first aiders take these skills back to their businesses but they also take them back into their communities. They come from all over New Zealand and include people who work in call centres, “unsung heroes in our community”, and front-line help staff like emergency operators.

“We also train people we call the invisible safety netters who are the likes of massage therapists or hairdressers who end up being social workers in disguise. They’re often listening to people share some really deep personal stuff about how they are.”

The Flick mental health first aiders, from left to right – Lisa Conti, James Leslie, Wayne Paletasala, Andy Hansen and Nick Horrell. Image: supplied.

Electricity company Flick began training its staff in 2018. It now has five mental health first aiders.

Flick web developer Lisa Conti is one of them. She’s a psychology major and is passionate about advocating for mental wellbeing. She’s grateful that Flick cares about the issue of employee health so much.

“You have first aid if someone gets a cut on their finger and you have workplace safety rules, but we bring our mental health with us to work every day and it can inhibit our safety at work. Having mental health first aiders is an acknowledgement that we care about it and we’re willing to have conversations about it. There’s a safe space for those conversations,” she says.

“But also, it provides that support that when these occurrences happen, which they will, there’s somebody there to make sure that doesn’t go unnoticed.”

Conti says in this current climate, the role of a mental health first aider is crucial as the effects of Covid-19 put both Flick’s staff and customers under unheralded pressure.

Flick’s mental health first aiders are in almost daily contact with the company, making sure the team knows they’re online and available for “wellness windows” – the gaps they leave open in their diaries for chats with staff. They’ve also set up a “mental wellbeing” Slack channel through which they, and the rest of the channel members, can check in on each other throughout the day. Conti says the channel has always been used a lot, but it’s become especially popular in recent weeks.

“It does feel like quite a big job but it’s really nice to know that you have an important role to play and that you can help people. And when you hear from people that they appreciate you for checking in on them – and they feel better after talking to you – that just shows it’s a really important job.”

Flick chief operating officer James Leslie is also a mental health first aider and says it’s helped him become a better boss. He was in Flick’s first batch of training and says it was a major eye-opener.

“I’ve never really been exposed to a lot of people with mental health challenges. I was a bit naive to the challenges some people are facing all the time. As a leader, I need to be aware of these things and be in tune with some of the emotional situations I may encounter with people in my team.

“I needed to recognise when people are having a challenging time, to be able to see the warning signs and to be able to step in and help is really important to me.”

He says Flick has always been an open workplace where staff feel safe to talk about their feelings. That recognition that mental health is an important part of wellbeing is ingrained in the company with the training cementing this approach.

“You feel a sense of responsibility around the wellbeing of people. [Since the training] I really think about that more. It’s a lot more present in my mind now thinking about what people might be going through when you’re having conversations with them. Just being more in tune with the emotional state of people… it’s really good to be comfortable dealing with those situations.”

He recommends other businesses consider the training, especially given the pressure of the current environment.

“Having mental first aid on the ground is raising awareness about the challenges people face – that’s important. There’s a whole range of things we’re doing to raise that awareness at Flick and this is just one of those things.”

The 2017/18 New Zealand Health Survey found that one in six New Zealand adults had been diagnosed with a common mental disorder at some time in their lives. This includes depression, bipolar disorders and anxiety disorders. Nearly  9% of adults had experienced psychological distress in the past four weeks.

With statistics like that mental health first aid no longer seems like a nice-to-have – a fluffy ideal that might benefit a few. It feels more like a must-have that will benefit many and is something we definitely need in these difficult times.

This content was created in paid partnership with Flick. Learn more about our partnerships here

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