How to support the wellbeing of mental health first aiders

  • In order to be able to effectively support someone with their mental health, mental health first aiders (MHFA) need to ensure they are protecting their own wellbeing and not pouring from an empty cup.
  • An essential part of the MHFA training should be a clear understanding of the role and its boundaries.
  • Ensuring that MHFAs have access to a more experienced mental health professional about feelings that they have been left with, or challenging conversations they may have had, is critical.

More than one-third (36%) of employees have expressed feelings of stress and sadness (38%) during the workday, according to mental health app Wysa’s December 2022 report All worked up UK edition, suggesting the need for staff mental health support is high. One example of this is the mental health first aiders (MHFAs) training programme, which employees can undertake in order to become a first point of contact for colleagues experiencing a mental health issue.

Due to the responsibility they take on, the wellbeing of MHFAs must also be a priority. Given the challenges the world has faced over the last few years, the need to support everyone’s mental health and wellbeing is greater than ever.

Responsibilities of the role

An essential part of MHFA training should be a clear understanding of the role and its boundaries. MHFAs are not trained therapists or a replacement for medical support services and should not be expected to act as such.

Sarah McIntosh, director of delivery at Mental Health First Aid England, explains that the organisation’s training course now includes three years of continuous support for mental health first aiders through its support app, resources and ongoing learning opportunities.

“Mental health first aiders should be encouraged to practise self-care, to set their own boundaries and communicate when they need to take a break from the role,” she says. “These points are vital in helping mental health first aiders thrive in their role and are part of wellbeing at work. This means developing a flexible, holistic mental health and wellbeing strategy that works for all employees and the business.”

Employers have a duty of care to ensure the wellbeing of those who have taken on the role and ensure they are not adversely affected by the support they give to others.

Boundaries are important in order to keep everyone safe; they will help MHFAs to recognise what their parameters of help are, and what should be passed to a professional. Employers should also ensure that the first aiders are able to manage the role as well as their main one in the organisation, and the potential for having a different type of relationship with colleagues.

Learning how to not take on the emotions of others can help to retain a healthy detachment, says Dr Kate Robinson, co-founder and chief clinical officer at My Therapy Assistant. MHFAs are not intended to provide ongoing support, so employers may want to monitor how they manage the time spent doing the role and how to respond if colleagues start to rely upon them.

“People who are drawn to helping have often had their own experiences of supporting loved ones with mental health struggles or have experienced mental ill health themselves, which can mean that they’re sensitive to feeling deeply,” she says. “While their sensitivity to issues can make them empathic and good listeners, it can also leave them vulnerable to being drawn into a helper role at the expense of their own mental health, and being affected by hearing about other’s struggles to the point that they feel them themselves.”

Prioritising wellbeing

MHFAs need to ensure they are protecting their own wellbeing and not pouring from an empty cup in order to be able to effectively support a colleague with their mental health. Employers should be proactive in their efforts to support the role of the MHFAs through continued encouragement to put their own wellbeing first, so they feel empowered and confident to carry out the role.

Creating a psychologically safe work environment for all should be at the heart of businesses’ values, says Dr Hannah Wilson, head of clinical governance and clinical psychology lead at Kooth Work.

“When it comes to who is supporting the wellbeing of employees and enabling a healthy workplace, while HR plays a vital part, the leaders and managers of an organisation are instrumental in creating the structure to make it happen,” she says. “This includes the C-suite, senior leadership team and anyone with line management responsibilities. Ensuring that all teams have their antennae tuned into employee wellbeing and keeping an eye out for any signs of concern or distress is critical.”

External support

Ensuring that MHFAs have access to a more experienced mental health professional is critical. They can be exposed to difficult and upsetting conversations, so employers should also offer a confidential space to talk about their experiences. A dedicated working group, peer support network or collaboration sessions for sharing concerns and best practice are worth considering, says Eugene Farrell, mental health consultancy lead at Axa Health.

“This provides an opportunity for sharing tips and ideas, but also prevents them from feeling lonely or isolated,” he says. “Sessions run by an external mental health professional can provide much needed support if issues arise or an individual’s own feelings are triggered by conversations they’re having.”

There is also a risk that MHFAs could suffer from compassion fatigue, so a forum that allows them to discuss things can be a useful coping method. An employee assistance programme (EAP) can offer additional support. It is essential that the MHFAs themselves have access to the right qualified therapists with the right breadth of therapies.

“It can be very anxiety provoking if [a colleague] reveals something and MHFAs are not sure if they should break confidentiality or what to do with that information,” explains Robinson. “It’s particularly important that MHFAs are provided with ongoing practical learning and support for the different situations that they face, such as accessible videos, checklists and tools on any device at the point of need.”

While mental health first aid is an important initiative to support a workforce, it is imperative that the volunteer employees’ own wellbeing is not overlooked. Employers need to ensure that mental health assistance and support is easily accessible for all employees.