'Mental Health First Aid has the power to save lives'

Natasha Devon, formerly the government's mental-health tsar, on changing UK law to mandate mental health first aid in every workplace and college

Emma Ledger
Wednesday 04 July 2018 15:59
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Whether you've just finished your GCSEs or are approaching retirement, mental illness can strike anyone at any time. But while it's often not possible to understand why mental ill health happens, there is much evidence to support early identification as a means to both manage potential crises and facilitate recovery.

That's where Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) comes in. Just as with physical first aid courses, MHFA trains people to spot the early warning signs of common mental health issues, as well as giving clear, practical guidelines to follow. For example, the course will teach you how to safely help someone who is having a panic attack, what to say and not to say to a person who is self-harming, and what is safe to recommend in terms of charity resources and self-care.

Natasha Devon MBE is a writer, campaigner and the government's former children’s mental health champion. She says 'MHFA is not a substitute for much needed mental health services, but just like their physical equivalents, the role of mental health first aiders has the power, ultimately, to save lives.

'Mental illness is still tied up with ideas about ‘character’. There is still a fear of being diagnosed and ‘labelled’ and how that will affect your future prospects, particularly for young people. This is part of the reason why people struggling often wait until their issues have become very severe before they even begin the process of getting help, which can be lengthy in itself.

'This desperately needs to be challenged and one way we can do that is by changing the focus from illness to wellness. MHFA courses make mental health universal, understanding that we all have a brain that needs looking after and encouraging everyone to practice daily self care. It makes mental health a community responsibility, as opposed to the remit of that ‘1 in 4’ we keep hearing about.'

We are in the midst of a mental health epidemic that transcends gender, age, race or class, but it is Britain's youth that has long been Natasha's particular focus. According to the charity YoungMinds, three children in every classroom have a diagnosed mental illness. The University of Birmingham’s Mental Health Policy Commission's revelation that youth mental health needs an additional £1.77bn funding and 23,800 staff to plug the current treatment gap underlines the need for a paradigm shift towards prevention.

Natasha recently co-founded an initiative called Where's Your Head At to help combat these frightening figures. Created with Lucie Cave, Executive Editor at Bauer Media, which publishes bestselling magazines including heat, Grazia and Closer, collectively reaching millions of readers every week, and with support from Mental Health First Aid England, Where’s Your Head At is calling for a change in UK law to ensure workplaces and colleges make provision for mental health first aid, as they do physical first aid​.

Natasha adds: 'I’ve campaigned in this area for ten years, visiting an average of three schools, colleges and universities every week, all over the UK. As an instructor for MHFA, I believe enshrining this change into the Health and Safety at Work Act will have a monumental and positive impact on our culture and is a relatively simple and cost effective change - whilst there is an initial cost to businesses for MHFA Training for staff, evidence shows it will pay multiple dividends.

'It seemed so strange to me that it wasn’t already law - one in six of us will experience a mental health issue in the workplace and time taken off for these represents the single biggest cost to UK businesses. We understand that physical health needs to be protected in a basic way at work. To give mental health parity seems, if you’ll pardon the pun, like a no-brainier.

'MHFA gives clear boundaries on where your role begins and ends and also emphasises that, much like the air mask that drops down from aeroplane seats, it’s important to attend to yourself first. It gives the first aider strategies for their own self-care, acknowledging that you can’t pour from an empty cup.'

Natasha recently released a book called A Beginners Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z, and she is quick acknowledge the potential power of new technology to help combat mental illness. 'Apps and social media have a huge role to play in increasing the wellbeing of young people,' she says. 'My focus groups suggest that many young people are more likely to reach out and openly discuss their mental health online than face to face. Technology can also connect young people to a community of like-minded individuals who understand and inspire them, which is a key component in recovery.

'That’s why it’s so frustrating that so much of the focus from both government and traditional media seems to be on universally condemning technology and social media, when early evidence suggests that, like most things, it can have either a positive or negative impact, depending on how it’s engaged with.'

It remains to be seen whether some of the £20bn that Theresa May awarded to the NHS ahead of its 70th birthday will be put towards mental health treatment specifically. Without better funding it's thought that by 2021 only a third of young people in England facing mental health difficulties are likely to have access to the support and treatment they need. That research comes from a report called Investing in a Resilient Generation, which is calling for a government policy to target the causes behind poor mental health in young people aged under 25 and under. MHFA is undeniably part of the solution.

Last month Natasha and Lucie Cave met MPs to discuss Where’s Your Head and persuade them to amend the Health and Safety regulations around first aid to include mental health. The Where’s Your Head At petition on change.org gained over 78, 000 signatures, meaning it will now be presented to parliament for discussion this Autumn. It's hoped that by then there will be even greater awareness of the vital role MHFA can play in keeping us all well.

For more information visit wheresyourheadat.org. Natasha Devon's book A Beginners Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z is available now.

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