October the 10th marked World Mental Health Day, a time to stop and consider how we can best support those around us who may be struggling. Given the amount of time we collectively spend in the workplace each week, particular thought should be given to the importance of mental health support at work.

There is already legislation in place providing the requirement for employers to ensure employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work, but what about helping those suffering with mental illness? If an employee for example has a panic attack or is expressing suicidal thoughts?

The concept of ‘Mental Health First Aid’ originated in Australia where Professor Anthony Jorm, a researcher from the University of Melbourne was discussing with his wife, Betty Kitchener, a Registered nurse, a recent mental health conference that he had attended. Within the conversation it was remarked that ‘What we really need is first aid for depression’. The idea has spread rapidly from there –developing into an internationally recognised programme comprised of simple steps that can be called upon to help a person in distress.

The principal aim behind the programme is to increase the mental health literacy of members of the community, which can be achieved by way of a twofold process of:

a) reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and

b) equipping individuals with simple first aid skills to be able to treat mental illness as like any other physical illness.

Since its inception in Australia more than a decade ago, the concept has spread all around the world. Training is now provided here in the UK by a number of agencies. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England offers training courses for both individuals as well as organisations and they provide a range of free, useful resources via their website. MHFA state that their goal is to train 1 in 10 people in mental health first aid skills.

So what would the role of Mental Health First Aider be? More often than not, mental health situations in the workplace will not be an emergency – but promoting awareness through the programme could make a huge difference to an employee who is struggling. Sometimes it is as much about knowing what not to say as opposed to what to say and the course covers all the basics to ensure first aiders are well equipped to provide initial assistance.

Obviously, provision of Mental Health First Aid within the workplace could not be rolled out on a one-size-fits-all basis in terms of scale – rather each business should consider what is appropriate and achievable given their size and structure. Many businesses and organisations in the UK have already made a positive move towards greater recognition and support for employees suffering with mental health problems, by making Mental Health First Aid a key component in workplace well-being policy.

Aside from the personal toll on those affected, mental ill health costs UK employers £3.4 billion every year and is the number one cause of sickness absence. Therefore implementing procedures to minimise these figures could make a huge difference from a business perspective as well. Having a trained member of staff on-hand to assist, just as they would with a physical illness or accident can only be a good thing. You can find out more information on how to arrange mental health first aid training for your organisation via the Mental Health First Aid England Website.