Over the past couple of months I have devoted considerable time to becoming a trained Mental Health First Aid instructor. It’s something my friend Jon Bartlett (@Projectlibero) and I decided to take on together, and I’m proud to say that this week we delivered out first course to a lovely bunch of delegates.
Originating in Australia, the Mental Health First Aid movement aims to do exactly what First Aid hopes to achieve for physical conditions: to equip people with enough skills and knowledge to support someone in a crisis situation and perhaps even save a life. Many of the skills valued by the course are things many of us probably know how to do already, like staying with somebody, listening and offering reassurance. MHFA offers specific information about mental health diagnoses and helps participants think very specifically about how they might apply their skills to someone in crisis with severe depression, suicidal thoughts, panic or psychosis.
I love being an active part of the mental health community, but I am also keen to try and take mental health messages to a wider audience. Jon and I started as we wanted to go on, delivering the training to professionals from a number of organisations, none of which specialises in mental health. Giving colleagues, line managers and Human Resources staff increased knowledge and confidence means that staff members with mental health conditions will benefit. We know that service users are often fearful of disclosing their difficulties to employers, while many line managers and HR officers see the phrase “mental health” and worry that they will do or say the wrong thing. Jon and I want to change that.
Getting to the point of delivering the training was a huge achievement for me. I didn’t find the seven full days of instructor training at all easy, and that was a shock. I spend so much time standing in front of groups talking about all aspects of my bipolar that I thought I’d be fine, even though I was quite seriously depressed. It turns out that standing at the front and being in control of the material is one thing. Sitting in the audience and hearing other people’s presentations about my symptoms was often really triggering, so with the support of our trainers I decided to sit several sessions out. Arriving on time for training was difficult too. In an attempt to address my persistent low mood my consultant had put my antipsychotics up to the maximum dose, so getting out of the house by 7am was extremely challenging. Over the course of the instructor training I constantly questioned whether I could realistically carry on, particularly as options like admission and referral to the Home Treatment Team became real possibilities.
But this Wednesday, as we moved into the final section of the two-day course, it all came together for me. There is a reason MHFA England specifically support service users into instructor training, and that is that being a lived experience trainer is incredibly powerful. Any trainer (assuming you’re doing it right!) commands a level of respect from participants. And although Jon and I did not speak at huge length about our own experiences, we did chip in and share personal examples that we felt might enhance the group’s understanding. For someone in a position of respect to say, in a matter of fact way, without any shame, that they used to self harm, that they sometimes hold paranoid beliefs, that they have very recently been suicidal, is immensely powerful. People with mental health conditions are not some separate group. They are right here in this room, and they are training you! Nor did we pretend we fitted into some ideal recovery narrative. We were very open about the fact that our conditions are ongoing, fluctuating and often restrict what we can do. We were human beings with mental health problems who just happened to be Mental Health First Aid trainers for a couple of days. We were the medium, and the medium was the message.
I’m really keen to offer more MHFA courses to as wide a range of people as possible. If you or your company are interested in MHFA, please drop me a line using the “Book Charlotte” page.