How a mental health first aid can help .

First aid

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If you think you don't know anyone in your life who has or has had an issue with mental illness, chances are you just don't recognise it.

The statistics tell us that one in five adults will experience a mental health problem each year. And that's only counting the people who are diagnosed.

That's part of the reason I signed up to do a mental health first aid course.

I thought it would help me support the people around me when they were experiencing mental health issues.

So, has my knowledge helped those around me? Well, not directly.

To be honest, like the time I did a physical first aid course, the person I have used my new first aid knowledge on has mostly been myself.

But that's not a bad thing. Here's why I think everyone would benefit from mental health first aid.

Mental health during coronavirus

I signed up for the course back in BC times. Before Coronavirus, that is.

I had no idea how difficult things were going to get for myself, my friends, family and pretty much the entire world.

You might think my mental health first aid knowledge kept me nice and healthy. Not quite.

I've been riding my very own coronacoaster of mental ups and downs, with many more downs than ups.

But what I learnt in the course has helped me be aware of this rollercoaster ride, which has helped me flatten my personal curve of plunging depression and anxiety attacks.

Mental health knowledge won't stop you experiencing poor mental health, just like physical first aid doesn't stop you injuring yourself. But it can give you the tools you need to know what to do about it.

That in turn makes you more available and aware when others might need support.

Why a separate mental health first aid course?

The first mental health first aid course was developed in Australia by Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm in 2000.

The aim was to educate the general public about mental health and mental illness in a similar way to what we learn about physical health and injury, so that more people can help others when they need it.

I went into the course knowing a bit about mental health.

My work has led to me researching, interviewing and writing about different topics that relate to mental health and illness over the years.

And I've got my own personal experience of having a poor mental health at times, and having people who are close to me experience problems.

But knowing things like the fact that anxiety and depression are the most common mental illness in Australia, that women report these issues more than men, that a person experiencing a delusion through psychosis probably won't be aware they are ill, is different from knowing how to approach someone and what support you might be able to provide.

Mental illness still carries a lot of taboo and stigma — some illnesses more than others — so if you do think you don't have people around you experiencing poor mental health, one reason could be that your friend or family member has not felt comfortable saying anything.

And that's another one of the reasons mental health first aid is important.

If your colleague falls over and breaks their arm, they probably won't feel weird about asking you to help them. But if they're feeling depressed or suicidal, they might not feel able to ask for assistance.

The course teaches you to be the one who starts the conversation with someone you think might be a risk to themselves, so they don't have to be the one who reaches out.

You might get it wrong and they're not going to hurt themselves. Then you've done nothing more than maybe got a little embarrassed.

You could help save someone's life by knowing to ask and knowing where they can get the support they need.

What happens when they're not OK

The idea of asking someone if they're feeling depressed or anxious or suicidal is intimidating.

Sure, we all know from RUOK Day that we should ask people if they're OK, but what if they say no? What then? Or what if they say they are OK and you're pretty sure they're not really.

The course can't teach you to spot a lie or make someone talk to you who doesn't want to, but it gives you insight into what to look for, ways around a difficult conversation, and provides you with enough knowledge to be able to tell someone what they might be able to access — services in your state, how to ask about mental health with a GP, for example.

Unlike physical first aid, there doesn't tend to be one right way to have a conversation with someone about their mental health.

You might need to slowly approach the subject. You might get it wrong and they really are fine. Or you might need to have a conversation over and over again before they're ready to open up to you.

But Claire Kelly, the director of research and curriculum with Mental Health First Aid Australia, says there's evidence this conversation training in courses is working.

"We have almost 20 years of research behind it … it shows that it does make a difference," she says.

You might have noticed I haven't given any advice on what to say or do if you or someone you know is having a hard time. That's because I'm not a mental health professional.

My role as a mental health first aider isn't to know all the answers and to solve all the problems — it's just to listen and guide people to places where you can get more information and help from professionals.

If you want to do a mental health first aid course (and you might have guessed by now that I would recommend it) it's worth asking your workplace if they will pay for you to do it.

A lot of businesses are starting to have mental health first aiders on staff as well as physical first aiders. And if they don't, it's a good conversation starter about whether they should.

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