What is Mental Health First Aid?

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training teaches people to identify mental illness in others and to be able to respond effectively to it. Courses dedicated to teaching mental health first aid strategies to members of the public. This first aid is given until appropriate professional help is found, or until the crisis has subsided. This article discusses the growing need for the MHFA, how it began, and what it includes.

What is mental health first aid?

prevalence of mental illness

It is thought that around 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health condition each year in England. The numbers have been increasing in recent years. For example, the number of people with a common psychiatric condition increased by 20% between the years 1993 to 2014. A person’s prognosis may also change several times throughout their life.

Suicides and self-harm are also on the rise – although the huge increase since 2018 for UK statistics is partly due to changes in the way deaths are reported, meaning that more deaths are now officially recorded as suicides than in the past.

Mental health problems have detrimental effects on many sectors of society. Having a diagnosable mental health condition can affect all areas of life — school, work, personal relationships, and ability to participate in society. The negative impact on workplace productivity is enormous – in the UK, for example, 15.8 million days were taken as the absence of illness due to mental ill health in 2016 (Office for National Statistics 2017).

Mental health literacy

Mental health literacy – defined as “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders, which are helpful in their recognition, management, or prevention” (Churchill, 2018) – is severely missing in the general population. Researchers believe this may exacerbate the impact of mental health problems.

The term was coined by Australian researchers who surveyed adults about the characteristics of mental health disorders. When giving small essays to characters suffering from depression or schizophrenia, it was found that most participants were unable to correctly identify the correct condition. Since then, much follow-up research has been done worldwide and these studies have confirmed that members of the public prove to be generally inconsistent when it comes to recognizing common health conditions.

This lack of mental health literacy can be problematic for several reasons:

  • It can mean people’s lack of self-awareness about the fact that they have a mental health problem
  • People may not realize that their symptoms are treatable
  • People may not know how or where to get treatment
  • The stigma surrounding ill-health may prevent some from seeking help

Image Credit: ALMAGAMI / Shutterstock.com

Beginnings of MHFA

The MHFA started in Australia and was the brainchild of Betty Kitchener AM and Professor Tony Jorm, who developed a non-profit organization for mental health training and research in 2000.

Mental health first aid is help given to a person who has a mental health problem, is experiencing an exacerbation of an existing mental health problem, or is in a mental health crisis. First aid is provided until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis is resolved.”

MHFA, Australia

Mental health first aid is provided to those who:

  • In the process of developing mental illness
  • Suffering from deteriorating mental health
  • In a mental health crisis

The emergence of MHFA courses

The courses are founded on researchers, expert researchers, clinicians, mental health consumers and caregivers from all over the English-speaking world.

MHFA courses equip members of the public with the following skills:

  • How to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems
  • Know the potential risk factors
  • Awareness of available treatments
  • How to help and support someone with a mental health problem
  • How to take appropriate action in the event of a crisis

The MHFA model means that trainers are trained in this skill set and then pass on their knowledge to other people. The approach is based on the Delphi method – opinions or decision-making are referred to a panel of experts for the purpose of obtaining a consensus view. Once trained, an MHFA-certified trainer can provide mental health first aid to those in the workplace, organization, or in the community.

The course covers symptoms and risk factors for the following disorders:

  • my depression
  • Worried
  • A psychopath
  • use materials

and associated mental health crises – such as traumatic experiences, panic attacks, drug overdoses and suicide.

The assistance provided is centered around a five-step action plan with the acronym ALGEE, which stands for:

  • A- Approach, assess and assist in any crisis
  • L – Listen and communicate without judgment
  • g – Giving support and information
  • E. Encourage appropriate professional assistance
  • E – Encourage appropriate support

It is adapted to the situation being treated.

How successful has the MHFA since its introduction?

Research in California, for example, has found that MHFA-trained individuals are better equipped in terms of their general knowledge, attitudes toward mental ill health, and health-providing behaviors. Some of the reported negative aspects include criticism about the lack of sustainable procedures in the work environment from those who are supposed to be MHFA trained, and questions raised about their cost-effectiveness.

Given the levels of public ignorance about mental ill health that were first identified by x and y, the increased awareness of mental ill health was at least a successful and much needed outcome of the MHFA.


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