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Insights What does a mental health first aider do?

14 May 2020

Mel Redfern is a Mental Health First Aider Facilitator Deputy and is based in our Birmingham office and #insideAtkins caught up with her for Mental Health Awareness Week.

image of Mel smiling

Why did you decide to become a Mental Health First Aider?

That’s an easy question for me because I’m passionate about health and well-being so I was keen to learn more about the role myself.  I was included in the Mental Health First Aider pilot in 2017 and at the time, as my role is based in HR, I was involved in helping provide information about some of the resources the company offer to staff such as the Employee Assistance Programme.

As I work in HR, I’m involved in lots of employee relations matters and staff welfare, I really wanted to make a difference in supporting the wellbeing of our people. From the training, I’ve been able to enhance my own role and help signpost some of our people to support and services available when they need it.

What is your experience of seeing the Mental Health First Aider network grow over the last two years?

To me, it’s really satisfying to see the network grow and the difference we can make to people in our organisation. Like anything, the growth of the network has also come with some challenges as it’s harder to make sure everyone can connect at the same time on a monthly basis. I’ve also found that in the earlier days, when we were a smaller group, it was sometimes easier to spot if anyone with the network might need additional support themselves but I find this a lot harder now and I find we’re more reliant on our Mental Health First Aiders self-identifying if they need to take a step back due to their own circumstances. It’s important to remember that our Mental Health First Aiders can often struggle themselves at times, so as well as helping people in our local offices we also need to make sure we’re keeping an eye out for people in our network.

What did you take away from the initial training you received?

The training gives you a different perspective on things, it helps you to become more open and it helped me to be mindful of my own unconscious bias’s that I might have related to certain illnesses. I felt that the course made me to be more aware, more open-minded and it really showed me that everyone is unique with their own experience and stories to tell. The course showed me that the role is about listening to people without preconceptions or pre-judgements and I think that is a valuable skill to have.

Did the training to be a Mental Health First Aider teach you about initiating and having conversations about mental health inside, and outside, of the workplace?

Everyone will say “how are you, are you ok?” and most people will respond with “I’m fine” but I learnt on the course that sometimes not everyone can open-up with their struggles straight away.  So, I think its important to tell people that it’s ok not to be ok and being sensitive towards an individual’s journey to opening-up and giving them a safe space to do so. For example, if you can see someone struggling in the middle of an office, or if you’re at a family gathering, it’s about finding the right time to have that quiet conversation to ask “is everything really ok?” and giving them the space to have a conversation. One of the key things I learnt was around eye contact, not everyone is comfortable with direct eye contact so sometimes I might suggest to go for a walk with someone and walking and talking about a certain issue. 

Are you able to tell us a little bit more about the resources and tools available to people in our organisation to support their mental health?

We’ve got a number of tools and resources available. We’ve got a lot of internal networking groups and specifically the Wellbeing Champions group has a lot of information available to people such as presentations; we’ve also got the Health Safety and Wellbeing internal networking group and our Mindfulness at Work group is very active too.

As well as this, we’ve got our Health and Wellbeing pages on internal site which has a number of documents that people can read an access. You can also find information there about our Employee Assistance programme which has a wealth of tools, guidelines, support information available and information on the support they can offer. We also use Wellness Action Plans and Wellness Recovery Action Plans which are useful tools for people to use if they are either, returning to work from a period of sickness or as a tool to initiate conversations about their personal mental health with their line manager.

What could other companies learn from our Mental Health First Aider programme?

I think we do a lot to continually evolve our Mental Health First Aider network and we also offer continuous professional development to our Mental Health First Aider community which I’m not so sure if other companies do regularly. We’ve developed a 12 month programme of on-going training via lunchtime webinars for our Mental Health First Aider network.

We use our Employee Assistance Programme heavily to support our own Mental Health First Aiders and we try to make sure our community are aware of things in the organisation that are going on which might mean more people turn to them, for example if some big changes are introduced in certain areas. 

What do you do to maintain your mental wellbeing?

I’ve got two kids who keep me quite active but it’s more so because I spend a lot of time running around after them! I try to make time to be active; I go swimming during the week, walk when I can, and I really enjoy a yoga class. I have to say the key for me is my sleep – I love my sleep! I always try to get a minimum of seven to eight hours sleep a night. From a personal point of view, I’ve struggled with depression in the past – I suffered from post-natal depression after my eldest son was born so I do know my own trigger points and am self-aware of what causes them. There are times when it does affect me as everyone has their dark days and I think this helps me relate and empathise with people struggling with their own mental health.