Today, 10th October, is World Mental Health Day. This date is internationally recognised, as an opportunity to raise awareness about all kinds of mental health issues.
The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is psychological first aid, and the support that we can all provide to those in distress.
In this context, distress can mean many things, ranging from witnessing a traumatic event to having a panic attack. The need for psychological first aid — also known as mental health first aid — might seem obvious for those working in an industry where staff are likely to be first responders to a trauma, such as in the emergency services and social services. Or for aid workers in war zones or regular areas of conflict. But ideally the basics should come naturally to all of us.
Because trauma can happen anywhere (think terrorist attacks in major cities) and to anyone (family, strangers, colleagues). It sends waves of impact through networks of friends at home and at work, and through whole industries and communities. So it’s a useful skill to have in any workplace.
In the same way that many remember the basics of physical first aid, such as ‘A, B, C: Airway, Breathing, Circulation’, today is a day to learn about mental first aid. So what exactly is psychological first aid?
Although psychological first aid is a term that has been used since the 1940s, it has become more widely known over the last 15 years. The World Health Organisation (WHO) — which drives World Mental Health Day all around the world — lists many international organisations that recommend the term, including the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK, and the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in the US.
The WHO describes psychological first aid as ‘a framework for how to respond in a natural, supportive, practical manner, emphasising listening without pressuring the person to talk; assessing needs and concerns; ensuring that basic physical needs are met; providing or mobilising social support, and providing essential information.’
You don’t have to do a ‘psychological debriefing’ or ask someone what happened, as this could make them relive the event. You needn’t ask someone to explain their condition, and don’t have to have detailed knowledge about mental health problems — just be there for them.
People are often afraid of saying ‘the wrong thing’ when it comes to mental health. So here’s some advice from the charity Rethink Mental Illness about how to help someone who’s having a panic attack:
Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort, accompanied by symptoms like an accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, choking feelings, chest pains or discomfort, feeling sick, feeling light-headed, and fear of losing control or dying. If you encounter someone who is having a panic attack, here are some helpful tips on how to deal with the situation:
What you might say:
“Would you like to go somewhere quieter?”
“I see this is very frightening for you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Is there something that usually helps you in this situation?” or “Is there anything I can do that usually helps you?”
What you might do:
Try to speak to the person in a reassuring but firm manner and stay with them.
Be prepared for the possibility they will have an intense desire to escape. Never grab, hold or restrain them. If they want to move around, suggest that they stretch, or go with you for a brisk walk.
Encourage them to try and control their breathing. You could ask them to breathe in and out on your count.
If the symptoms do not subside within 15 minutes, consider seeking urgent medical advice. When in doubt make the call, even if only for advice.
Panic attacks can happen to anyone, not just people with a history mental health problems. It could be the very first time someone has experienced feeling like this. In a workplace situation, witnessing an accident where someone has been badly hurt can sometimes trigger these sorts of symptoms. So train drivers, factory workers and builders operating heavy machinery could be particularly at risk.Panic
But there are many other triggers too. Personal problems at home can also lead to extreme reactions. People experiencing domestic abuse, or struggling with addiction, can experience intense feelings wherever they are, at any time. These days technology means that we’re increasingly connected, so anyone can receive bad news via their phone, wherever they are — in the office, at lunch, at their desk. They might go into shock. And different types of mental health problem can lead to different types of distress, such as feeling suicidal, severe anxiety or hearing voices. Moreover, mental health problems don’t discriminate, so they affect CEOs and workers on the factory floor alike. It could happen to any of us.
Employers should remember that using psychological first aid can lessen the impact of a traumatic incident — whether work-related or not — in terms of an employee’s long-term health and their ability to return to work. So why not think about psychological first aid as part of your company’s wider mental health strategy? A good employee wellbeing programme will always have mental health as one of its priorities.
Many organisations have offered mental health first aid training to their staff recently, including UCL University, Arsenal in the Community and the news provider ITN.
Lesley Everett, ITN’s director of operations, who leads the mental health awareness initiative at ITN, says: “Taking part in the training has made us all much more confident to support someone who may be experiencing an issue with their mental health — from stress, to anxiety or depression. I now feel that I know much more about what to say and do in an informal chat or in an emergency, and would be able to reassure someone that help is at hand.”
So in order to support World Mental Health Day today, why not think about how psychological first aid could strengthen your company?
Find out more about the wellbeing workshops that Kamwell provides here.