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Screening questions for interviewing mental health first aid candidates

Imagine the following scenario, you’ve put out an advert for staff to volunteer to be Mental Health First Aiders. Amazingly you get loads of people come forward with unbelievable amounts of enthusiasm, and you fill all of the spots in no time. A huge success, right? Maybe not…

All that glitters isn’t gold

Once your scheme’s been up and running for a few months, you begin to hear reports that staff say they didn’t find their interactions with the mental health first aider useful. Some even saying it was a waste of time. The mental health first aid reputation in your business begins to decline….

A common trap

It turns out you might just’ve fallen prey to the enthusiasm trap, where we tend to believe somebody is well suited because they’re highly enthusiastic. In my experience, many of the most enthusiastic to jump into these roles are what we call ‘saviours’. Those who want to be recognised for having saved and fixed those who are struggling.

“What’s wrong with that?”, I hear you say. Well, the problem with the saviours is that it’s actually more about them and not about the person they’re supposed to be supporting and empowering. You’ve probably come across them, the type of person that loves the fact that all of their friends regularly bring their problems to them, because they ‘give good advice’.

This reliance brings a sense of importance, and of being ‘needed’. Not conducive to empowering others to be the hero of their own story.

There’s more where that came from

Saviours are just one of the types of people you want to keep an eye out for, as they can be detrimental to the success of a mental health first aid project. The problem is, they’re not usually in it for others, but in it for themselves. Alongside saviours, ‘fixers’ ‘know-alls’ ‘controllers’ and ‘shiny new object lovers’ are other enthusiastic candidates you might want to steer clear of.

What’s the solution?

If you decide that saviours, fixers and controllers aren’t what you’re looking for, you might want to consider a face-to-face screening process to ensure you weed out anybody unsuitable. A simple form filling process isn’t an effective method for ruling out those you don’t want.

What should we ask?

There are a handful of key questions that should tell you what you need to know before making a decision. These alongside the person matching your person specification and having read and liked the sound of the role description, should put you in a good position.

Screening question 1 – Their reason ‘WHY?’

Asking the person ‘why they want to be a mental health first aider’ can tell you a lot and uncover motivations beyond the superficial ones. A candidate who phrases their response in the context of the other person (eg: “I don’t like to see others struggling in their lives”) is probably going to be more ‘other-focused’ than somebody who responds with the context being about them (“I’m good at solving problems, and people tell me I give great advice”)

Exploring their why will also tell you if they fall into any of the following camps mentioned earlier:

· Shiny object syndrome

· Like others depending on them

· Want to feel important

· Like telling others what to do

· Like being the expert in the room

· Like authority/being in control

Screening question 2 – Tell us about a time you experienced mental health struggles?

I’m a firm believer that having been through your own challenges (or a loved one) is essential to being a good mental health first aider. If your life has been a bed of roses, how can you possibly empathise with somebody who is telling you about their struggles?

You might be able to at an intellectual level, but not at an emotional level. Much in the same way as a politician talking to a single mother about her daily struggles. Their worlds are so far removed from one another empathy becomes difficult.

Reduces judgement

This is also important because many people lack sympathy when it comes to mental health problems. That usually changes once they or a loved one experiences struggles. This is because they begin to appreciate the link between life events and mental health. Those who don’t believe in that link may be more judgemental of anybody struggling.

Another factor highlighted by this question is the person’s degree of willingness to discuss their own challenges. A lot can be garnered from this response. Somebody unwilling to share can hardly expect others to do so.

Somebody who is more than happy to talk on and on about themselves and make it all about them is also very illuminating, as maybe that could be part of their motivation for the role. What we’re looking for here is a healthy level of willingness to share.

Screening question 3 – How do you manage your own wellbeing?

Mental health first aiders need to be people who walk their own talk. Nobody will take their suggestions seriously if they don’t appear to follow their own rules for life. Would you take advice about the dangers of smoking from your doctor if you knew they also smoked?

A candidate who can confidently tell you about the health practices they follow is the type of person who can inspire others. They obviously follow those practices regularly because they believe in them and their benefits. An ‘occasional’ Yoga practitioner or weekend exerciser clearly hasn’t bought into the practices.

Some do nothing at all, and this in itself can be revealing. It may mean they have no reason to as their life has been free of struggle, so there’s no need, which in itself is important to know. They may be more of a reactive than proactive person, in that they put out fires rather than try to prevent them. Ask yourself is this a quality you want in your role models?

Ultimately doing nothing can mean a variety of things, and its up to you to determine if it’s a problem in each case.

Screening question 4 – What would you do.......?

One final screening question that can be very useful is to give the candidate a scenario and ask them to tell you what they would do. Ideally a roleplay would fit best here, but as a second place, giving them a scenario is useful.

Keep it real

Maybe there have been situations in your organisation that have arisen that was poorly dealt with by a manager or team leader. Pose that situation to the mental health first aid candidate and ask what they would do or have done differently. This will give you a good indication as to how they think, and how they would operate in the real world.

As I said above, a roleplay is clearly the best option, even though many don’t enjoy them. But its far and away the best method of seeing what people will do in situations, as there’s always a gulf between what people say they would do and what they actually do. You only have to ask people how many calories they consume each day to see that this is true!

Be on the lookout

So, when it comes to your selection process just remember that all that glitters is not gold, there will be saviours, fixers, heroes, know-alls and all sorts out there wanting to jump into the mental health first aid role.

But by taking a more measured approach to recruitment you can weed out anybody that might have a detrimental effect on the reputation of your mental health first aid team.

A good series of questions can show you whether you’ve stumbled upon fool’s gold or real gold. Real gold will boost the reputation of your mental health first aid team, and its impact in terms of reducing absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover...


Jonathan Pittam

Mental Health Educator


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