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Mental Health Awareness Week: 3 takeaways from Mental Health First Aid training

by | May 13, 2021 | Being IMPOWER | 0 comments

Earlier this month, Ebony Hughes explained why employee wellbeing is key in organisational resilience. This belief is not limited to our clients; employee wellbeing has also become an integral component of IMPOWER’s own operating model and conditions for success.

Last week, over 15% of IMPOWER staff undertook training with MHFA England to become certified Mental Health First Aiders – myself included. This training forms an important part of IMPOWER’s wider programme of support to protect and invest in employee wellbeing throughout and beyond the pandemic. Critically, it promotes greater parity of esteem between physical and mental health within the organisation.

Over two intense days, colleagues from Consultant to Director level across the country were trained in noticing and responding to signs of mental ill health, coached in non-judgemental listening and provided with tools and resources to support appropriate signposting for recovery.

For me, there were three personal takeaways from the MHFA England training:

  1. Mental health is inherently complex

It not a binary state – you are not either mentally healthy or ill. The dominant school of thought describes a state of mental health across two continua on different axes: ‘diagnosis – no diagnosis’ and ‘maximum mental wellbeing/fitness – minimum mental wellbeing fitness’. It is entirely feasible for someone with a diagnosable mental illness (such as bipolar disorder) to be coping well and have positive mental health, and vice versa. For me, this message is extremely powerful in reducing stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health.

  1. Your individual ‘frame of reference’ matters

Listening to the person is a key step in mental health first aid. And not just listening, but active, non-judgemental listening. Our upbringing, past experiences, education and culture are all unique and, as such, shape our perceptions – or, our frame of reference. When providing mental health first aid to someone, a good sense of self-awareness will enhance our ability to truly listen non-judgementally to the person we are helping, and be not hindered by our frame of reference.

  1. Empathy vs. sympathy

Until now, I have always used ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ interchangeably. However, a wonderful 3-minute video by Dr Brene Brown offers some real insight into empathy and how it differs from sympathy. For Brown, “empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection”. Empathy requires an emotional component of really feeling with the other person, which can be uncomfortable and challenging, but it is what creates an emotional bond. In contrast, sympathy is about feeling for a person and understanding their emotions from a distance.

While we all took something slightly different away from the training, a collective theme emerged. We have a newfound confidence in supporting colleagues to talk about their mental health – not only with direct reports, project teams and those on the same grade boundaries, but moving beyond work boundaries entirely. We feel empowered to start new types of conversation with our friends, relatives, neighbours and even strangers within each of our own communities – just in time for Mental Health Awareness Week.