How to ensure mental health first aiders are effective

mental health first aiders

Need to know: 

  • Mental health first aiders need to be representative of the workforce and evenly distributed across an organisation, ensuring that they are accessible to all employees.
  • From visible signposting worn by trainees, through to branded awareness campaigns, mental health first aid initiatives must be well communicated to be fully effective.
  • Employers should be clear on what benefits are in place to help those struggling with mental health issues, as well as providing support for the first aiders themselves.

From small marketing agencies training half their employee base, to thousands-strong utilities organisations placing mental wellbeing on a par with health and safety, mental health first aid training is becoming increasingly popular among modern employers.

However, there is a danger that employers will view this as a trendy initiative that can be implemented quickly to tick the mental health box, without making the right efforts to ensure it is actually effective.

The trainees

First, employers should focus on getting the right distribution when it comes to those being trained. Alison Unsted, head of strategy and operations at City Mental Health Alliance, says: “The most important thing is accessibility, ensuring that [there are] sufficient numbers of mental health first aiders, in different divisions, different locations, because understanding people’s environments is really important. It’s [also] very important, particularly given what a sensitive area it is, to enable face-to-face conversations.”

This means that an organisation comprised of dispersed, smaller sites might need a larger number of mental health first aiders, compared with a larger organisation based in one central location. It is also worth considering the distribution of seniority, to ensure employees are able to speak with someone they are comfortable around.

Promotional campaigns

Once the right cross-section of employees has been trained, organisations will need to boost awareness. This is particularly important if this is one of the first steps an organisation is taking to open up the conversation around mental wellbeing at work.

Simon Blake, chief executive officer at Mental Health First Aid England, says: “[Employers] would be unlikely to just be able to put mental health first aid in and for it to be a really successful programme. There’s no point having people who are well trained if nobody knows about them.”

There are some simple tricks, such as using brightly coloured lanyards, putting posters around the workplace, and including mental health first aid details in the onboarding process.

One important element, Blake notes, is ensuring that contact details are accompanied by a picture of the relevant first aider, making them more personal and accessible, as well as easier to spot around the workplace.

Another way to ensure maximum effect is to incorporate a sense of employer brand, he adds: “The more an organisation makes it feel like it belongs to them, the better. It makes it feel like part of the organisation, and shows that [the employer has] really thought about it.”

Alex Sturge, head of communications and engagement at UK Power Networks, speaks from experience: “It was important to us that it wasn’t a generic mental health campaign; we didn’t think that would resonate with our staff, who traditionally find it hard to talk about mental health.”

UK Power Networks focused its mental health communications on videos depicting real scenarios from employee assistance programme (EAP) calls, and made concerted efforts to get actors who reflected its staff demographic.

“These were people who really resonated with the audience, and the response was really emotional,” Sturge explains. “We were able through that to signpost the support options, one of which was 100 mental health first aiders that were trained this year.”


For mental health first aid to work best, there should already be some foundations of care and communication within the organisation’s culture. A positive first step might include workshops focused on mental health, or providing educational material on the staff intranet.

However, Unsted notes that mental health first aid can provide a foundation in itself: “There are some organisations that have made a really positive first step in training all senior leaders. The training will give [them] a really good understanding around mental ill health and using appropriate language to talk about it.

“The important thing is, whether or not [an employer starts with] mental health first aiders in the early days, to ensure there are routes to help if needed. As soon as the conversations start happening, signposting should be [possible].”

Therefore, no matter what point mental health first aid is implemented, it should accompanied by benefits to support mental health, such as an EAP or on-site counselling.

Clear process

Organisations need to be clear on several points for mental health first aid to be effective: “[Employers] need to understand what they’re trying to achieve overall. [They] can’t just insert mental health first aid, [they] need to be clear about why, what the context is, and what success looks like,” says Blake.

This will also help in ensuring that the first aiders, and the people around them, understand the remit and limitations of their roles, adds Unsted: “Some organisations may look at this [as] the solution to the problem, but actually mental health first aiders are there to have that first conversation in a confident and appropriate way, and then signpost that person to the appropriate help. So, it’s about defining what is the role of the mental health first aider, but also what else the organisation is doing and how it wants to support people.”

This need for clarity also refers to the mental health first aiders themselves, who should be able to access support, continue learning and share challenges. This might be as simple as having regular meetings among all trained individuals, or setting up a social media messaging group.

“First aiders have to feel well supported, that there is somebody they can go to,” explains Blake. “Where we’ve seen it be most successful is when there’s real clarity over what the role is and how they can get support as the first aider.”

The business model

Mental health first aid needs to be couched in a culture of openness, support and care. “Make it part and parcel of business as usual, rather than a special interest topic sitting on the periphery,” Unsted explains. “Part of how a team works every day is ensuring everybody feels well and can thrive in the workplace.

“One practical tip would be that in performance appraisals line managers are required to speak to their team individually about wellbeing, so it just forms part of the normal conversations we all have.”

By having surrounding initiatives, such as dedicated wellbeing sessions, particularly when time is itself a valuable commodity, employers can make it clear that this is part of a business model, rather than a tick-box exercise.

Sturge concludes: “It’s been interesting to see the opening up of people who previously didn’t feel they had that opportunity. From an employee engagement perspective, that’s absolutely vital. It’s making a real difference.”