Mental health first aid

It would be hard to argue that we aren’t better off for having trained first aiders in our midst – people who, whether it’s in the workplace or on the street, can step in and help when someone has collapsed or broken their arm. But as much as we need first aiders for our physical health, we also need mental health first aiders. What do we mean, though, when we talk about mental health first aid?

Well, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s first aid but instead of focussing on the Heimlich manoeuvre and the recovery position it’s focussed on identifying and responding to mental health problems. In the grand scheme of things it’s a relatively new phenomenon, despite the fact that there’s long been a need for mental health first aiders. However, it’s only in recent years that the potential to have people in the workplace and in the street, people like you and me, who can help those experiencing a mental health problem has been realised.

The materials provided on Mental Health First Aid England’s courses are incredibly comprehensive, and a great resource to refer back to from time to time

Mental Health First Aid England is an organisation that’s been delivering mental health first aid courses in the UK since 2009. It’s part of a global movement, active in 25 or so countries, that has trained over 3 million people in how to look after their own and others’ mental wellbeing. Mental Health First Aid England’s goal is to train one in every ten people as a mental health first aider, and they work alongside organisations such as St John Ambulance (who provide traditional first aid courses) to achieve that goal.

I took one of Mental Health First Aid England’s two day courses last month, a course that was focussed on adult mental health. They have a number of other courses though, of varying duration, which are tailored to the mental health needs of, for example, children, students, employees, and people working in the armed forces. My course was taught by Christina, a former mental health nurse who grew up caring for her schizophrenic mother and bipolar father. Christina brought not only a wealth of personal experience to the course, but also a huge amount of passion to normalise society’s attitudes and behaviours towards mental health through education. And that’s what I’ve always encountered when I’ve delved into the world of mental health – people who are passionate about making a difference, both to people’s lives and to the status quo.

My mental health first aid course wasn’t just interesting and informative, it challenged the way I view things and forced me to think hard about some uncomfortable subjects which it’s sometimes easier to avoid. It didn’t always make for easy listening, but it was a privilege to hear the stories of people who talk openly about their mental health in the hope that it helps others to better understand, and support, them. And it was hugely empowering. Since finishing my course I’ve felt better equipped to talk to friends about their anxiety, to support someone with an eating disorder, and to help a friend who told me they were having suicidal thoughts. It’s often a case of knowing what to say and how to say it, or which direction to point people in for professional help, and my first aid course taught me all of those things.

Mental Health First Aid England’s five step “ALGEE” approach to assessing and assisting someone with a mental health problem

Is there a mental health first aider in your midst? Maybe one of your friends has done a course, or someone in your family? Does your workplace have any mental health first aiders, and if so, do you know who they are? Why not take a moment to look them up, and make sure everyone in the office knows about them. Because someone will need their support at some stage, and that someone may be you. Or maybe your workplace is one of the four in every five organisations that doesn’t have a trained mental health first aider. In which case, maybe it’s a good time to put yourself forward and ask if you can go on a mental health first aid course. It won’t just change your attitudes towards and your understanding of mental health, it’s very likely that it will change someone else’s life.

Four legged friends

We might laugh about cafes where, whilst sipping on Earl Grey, you can pet a cat, snuggle with a hedgehog, or spend quality time with sheep. But animal therapy…it’s genuinely a thing.

The special bond between humans and animals dates as far back as prehistoric times, when the dog is thought to have first been domesticated. For millennia animals have been trained for working purposes, but there has long been more to our relationship with animals than mere functionality. The practice of keeping animals as pets has, up to the present day, been a part of nearly every culture and society throughout the world. As though it’s something that goes to the very core of our being.

On the receiving end of some unconditional love from Ghillie, one of the nine dogs I had the pleasure of living with earlier this year

When it comes to connection, animals are some of our best teachers. They have an ability to bring us out of our shells, and have been thought to positively influence our relationships with other humans. Animals also provide us with a huge source of comfort and companionship, and can have a profoundly relaxing and calming influence on our daily lives. For these reasons they have been thought to reduce anxiety and stress, and to help people living with, amongst other things, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and loneliness to live mentally healthier lives. Countless animals, whether working as official support animals or otherwise, have changed the lives of their human companions, even saved them.

Growing up I had two dogs and I spent much of my spare time riding horses at a local stables. Our dogs sadly passed away, and new chapters of my life took me to university and a job in London so horse riding became a thing of the past. I don’t think I fully appreciated what my four legged friends did for my mental health at the time, but I certainly missed them and their impact on my life when they were no longer a part of it. When I struggled with my mental health a few years ago I found myself reflecting on the time I spent with dogs and horses as a child, and wondered whether I was in need of a bit of animal therapy.

Exploring the bluebell woods of the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate with Olive

Sadly my life in a garden-less flat in London isn’t particularly conducive to owning a dog, so I had to seek out the next best thing. From time to time I would borrow my sister’s dog Olive, and take her for walks that would not only clear my head but also provide me with the kind of unconditional love and lack of judgement that I craved. A day spent with Olive was never a bad day, and I owe her much more than the long walks and dog treats that I gave her. Although she did get some rather luxurious dog shampoo out of it too.

l hadn’t sat on a horse for the best part of 17 years, and wondered if it was possible to gain anything except fear and apprehension from getting back in the saddle. I nervously booked myself onto a ride at the start of 2017, which could’ve gone one of two ways. But being around horses again instantly brought me a sense of calm, and an unspoken connection and understanding that can be hard to find in our daily lives.

Connecting with horses and with nature whilst working at Estancia Los Potreros, Argentina

Horses are now a huge part of my life, and have taken me to some incredible places. I’ve ridden them through the Welsh hills, raced them across the Mongolian steppe, had jaw dropping game sightings from horseback in South Africa, and most recently been immensely privileged to spend four months working with them at Estancia Los Potreros in Argentina. They’ve brought smiles to my face, and caused tears of joy to run from my eyes as I’ve galloped into the wind leaving behind the things that are weighing me down. They’ve known when I’m sad or when I’m heartbroken, and when I need them to just be there. They’ve taught me to listen to them, to trust their judgement, and to know when to listen to myself and to trust my own. And they’ve allowed me to get outdoors, to breathe in lungfuls of fresh country air, and to meet new friends from all over the world. I’m indebted to every single one of them all.

Whether it’s horses or dogs, cats or birds, hedgehogs or sheep, there are easy ways that you can incorporate animals into your life. If you don’t own a dog or cat, why not ask around and see if friends or family, or maybe even someone in your neighbourhood, needs help with theirs. Why not sit in the garden and admire the birds, or head to your local park or nature reserve. City and country farms are also a great place to spend time with animals and to connect with nature. Or you could sit in a cafe and stroke a cat, hedgehog or sheep while you drink a cup of Earl Grey.

Actor, one of the horses at Estanica Los Potreros, with whom I developed a special bond

Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental health. It’s interesting how people start to fidget and look uncomfortable when they hear those words, like they’re something to be scared of. No one wants to be associated with them, with their negative connotations which are weighed down by judgement and prejudice. It’s better to look away, to avoid the conversation, than to talk about mental health.

The reality is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. Some of us have good mental health, and some of us have poor mental health. And many of us have a mixture of both, depending on what’s happening in our worlds at a given moment in time. So why are we so scared of something that we all have? Perhaps it’s because it’s something that, for many years, we haven’t really talked about and therefore don’t properly understand.

This week it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. So it’s the perfect opportunity for each of us to check in with our own mental health and that of our family, friends and colleagues, and to learn a bit more about mental health so that we can all get to a place where we understand it better.

Why not take a few minutes this week to ask yourself what your mental health looks like – is it good, or is it poor? And if you don’t like the way it looks, what can you do to change it?

Knowing where to start can be overwhelming, but there are countless resources that are available online which give advice and guidance on everything from stress to sleeping problems. You could also spend this week following a new Instagram account to get some ideas on how to better look after your mental health. Some of my favourites are MindMental Health Foundation and Time to Change, but there are many more – find one that has the right tone and content for you.

Instagram accounts, like that of the mental health charity Mind (@mindcharity), can be a great source of information and advice

You could also watch some of the programmes being screened by the BBC this week as part of their Mental Health Season, programmes which help us to realise that its normal to experience poor mental health and to better understand what its like living with a mental health problem.

But nothing beats talking. Maybe this is the week that you start a conversation with your friends, family or colleagues about your own and their mental health. You might realise that you’re not alone in the struggles you face, and that the people you thought may be quick to judge you are actually there to lend you their ear and to share their own experiences. Starting a conversation might end up with you getting the support that you need, or giving that support to someone who has needed it for far longer than anyone realised. We should be having these conversations 52 weeks of the year, but we’re not. If there was ever a time to start having them, it’s this week.

Speaking about mental health and mental health awareness in Libreria bookshop, London

A few years ago I was struggling with my mental health, and I started my own conversation with some of my friends. It wasn’t easy, but it was a first step in the right direction. And I never dreamed that that first step would lead me to where I am now. I spent last week and will also be spending this week standing at the front of a room of people, some of whom I know and some I don’t, talking about mental health and mental health awareness.

What the last few years have taught me is that talking about mental health is contagious – when one person opens up, so does everyone else. And that although that first conversation may be difficult, and you may try to talk yourself out of it for fear of being judged and ridiculed, subsequent conversations are always much easier.

So start that first conversation, open yourself up and be open to others. And together we can make the words “mental health” nothing to be scared of.