• Jonathan Pittam

The importance of developing your mental health first aiders

Updated: 2 days ago


“I feel like I’ve been thrown to the sharks”


Those were the words of a mental health first aider I spoke to recently. They’d been on the Mental Health First Aid training course the previous year and had been finding their way uncomfortably ever since.


Hearing those words transported me back in time to my days competing as an amateur boxer. One of my earliest memories is of being in a tournament and thinking, “I don’t even know how to defend myself properly!” To say I felt out of my depth is an understatement.


Go on jump in


Those who oversee the mental health first aid teams in organisations probably aren’t knowingly throwing their team members to the sharks, but unfortunately that’s how many feel. ‘Unprepared’ is the word I’d use to describe the experience of many.


Often the person co-ordinating the team isn’t the one taking and making calls so may not fully understand what the mental health first aiders are exposed to. In the early days of any new role there are lots of unknowns, and it’s through training and development along with experience these unknowns become knowns.


The missing link


Many organisations just focus on the experience element rather than combining it with development. The mental health first aid course can be akin to your driving test, as in the real learning happens after you pass and go out onto the roads alone, because now you’re in the real world.


On the Employee Benefits website they mention how the ‘Employee Retention Report’ states that a ‘lack of growth and development opportunities’ is one of the main reasons why people leave their job. That means its ahead of poor work-life balance and manager behaviour.


Can we apply this to mental health first aid, and consider if offering growth and development opportunities make your team more likely to want to continue in the role?


Boost motivation


When we learn something new, we expand our toolkit and therefore our capabilities. These new capabilities increase our confidence and desire to put them to use. The excitement of having a new tool to start using can’t be underestimated. Like anything new we can’t wait to start using it.


The more a mental health first aider’s skill and knowledge gaps are plugged the more they will grow in terms of confidence, skill and motivation. I remember when I learnt to speed read, suddenly I went from feeling (as a very slow reader) that reading was a chore to feeling like a child in a sweet shop. A whole new world opened up for me because I picked up a gamechanging new skill.


How should you develop your mental health first aiders?


That’s the 64-million-dollar question isn’t it. But don’t let feeling you have to get it absolutely perfect put you off from taking action. There are countless skills and areas of knowledge that your mental health first aiders can benefit from, and it can seem overwhelming trying to decide where to start.


My suggestion is to always ask them what they feel they need right now. A simple digital survey to ask the question is all you need, then go with the consensus. This removes all of the overwhelm as the thinking is done for you by those on the frontline.


Team bonding


The fact that you’re getting everybody together is a plus as it gives more time for everybody to gel and share thoughts and ideas with others in the same boat as them. In my experience the worst thing you can do is nothing at all as you’re missing a bonding opportunity and a chance to show you’re interested in developing them rather than simply throwing them to the sharks.


Tapas rather than a 5-course buffet


Doing little and often keeps morale high as the team are getting something new to learn and road test before coming back to learn something new again a few months later. Its amazing what you can achieve with a quarterly two-hour training session.


Time to get cracking


So, we know that those who don’t get development opportunities in their roles are more likely to leave them, so by incorporating development opportunities you can boost the skills, confidence and motivation of your mental health first aid team.


People can really sniff out a lack of confidence and that’s the last thing you want a caller to your mental health first aiders thinking, as its not conducive to a good outcome. We have to feel confident that the person supporting us has confidence in their own abilities.


Survey the land


So, why not throw together a simple survey and ask your mental health first aiders what skills and knowledge they’d like to gain? The simple fact of even being asked for their opinion will send out the message that you care about your team…


Jonathan Pittam

Mental Health educator