Life Affirming

The experience of Mental Health First Aider training

I hadn’t intended to become a Mental Health First Aider in 2019 but when a couple of my dearest friends experienced mental health crises, I became aware that my love and my compassion could only go so far in supporting them. 

At times I felt totally inadequate and, though I was treading carefully, I was fearful of making things worse. I became aware that I needed and wanted to be better informed to support them more fully. Especially when, with all that was going on for them, they felt utterly overwhelmed and consumed, and so chose to withdraw.

When the opportunity of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training crossed my radar unexpectedly, I was ready to step in. I signed up for the MHFA England two day adult first aider training programme delivered by Imagine Independence, a charity working together with people who have mental health issues and other challenges.

Mental health issues are common. We all have mental health; sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not, and that affects our ability to function daily, it may also come with physical symptoms. 

Physical First Aid is common place in our communities,
now Mental Health First Aid is available

Yet while we are accustomed to the contribution of physical First Aiders across our communities, the concept of mental health First Aiders is relatively new.

Betty Kitchener and Professor Tony Jorm of MHFA International pioneered Mental Health First Aid programmes in Australia in 2000. Their work gathered global momentum and now Mental Health First Aid England offers training to empower community members ‘to provide better initial support to people developing or in a mental health crisis.’

The programme does not require entry qualifications, all that’s needed is a desire to offer first aid assistance when it comes to identifying and supporting someone who is developing a mental health issue or is in a mental health crisis. Nor is it a substitute for professional mental health advice; part of the first aid is to gently encourage appropriate professional help and other supports.

Joining the group of trainees at Imagine’s office on Hope Street in Liverpool – how beautifully appropriate – I had no preconceptions about the two days ahead. I didn’t know anyone who had been on the programme and as the reality of embarking on the course kicked in, I felt apprehensive.

I needn’t have worried.  Ant Dowell introduced himself as our programme tutor and immediately set the friendly and personal tone. There was audible relief in the room when the importance of humour was underlined as a part of the training; we would be dealing with big issues yet there would be opportunity along the way to have a laugh about what life can throw at us sometimes. 

Group agreements for the training sessions

Everyone was invited to share the reason for attending. Some, like me, had put themselves forward; others had been ‘voluntold’ by their employer! 

Ant outlined the days ahead; we’d be working together in pairs and small groups, we’d watch short case study films and see art created by people with mental health issues to express how they felt and we would be creating our own group visuals to explore what we understood of different mental health issues and experiences.

MFHA course materials

Course materials were handed out, a chunky manual, a slim workbook and a pocket size pouch containing a folded leaflet outlining ALGEE, a neat mnemonic to assist in remembering the sequence of steps to gently offer mental health first aid assistance to someone in need. 

Working in two groups, we explored how different aspects of mental health feel
and we shared our findings through visuals

Throughout the training we were asked to call out to Ant what ALGEE stands for. By the time the course concluded, ALGEE was successfully ingrained in everyone’s hearts and minds! Though it does feels reassuring for me to have the handy fold out leaflet in my purse for reference at any time too.

The MFHA adult two-day programme explores mental health issues and mental health crises to improve knowledge, reduce stigma, and increase first aid actions towards people with mental health issues.

We soon bonded as a group, working together, sharing our experiences, our insight and our ignorance at times too! Ant emphasised there is no shame in not knowing; the focus of the programme is to encourage better understanding. 

In the safe and confidential environment, fellow trainees chose to offer up first hand experience, which brought powerful insight and even greater understanding to discussions and the learning curve. 

Equally, there was no pressure whatsoever to share. If at any time, anyone felt they wished to leave the room, without explanation, that important act of self-care was positively encouraged. ‘Be aware when it’s not ok for you to talk about something’ Ant urged us all. I found the whole training experience one of compassion and support.

MHFA training covers

Mental Health Issues


Anxiety disorders

Easting disorders


Substance misuse

Mental Health Crises

Suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Self harm

Panic attacks

Reactions following a traumatic event

Severe psychotic states

Severe effects from substance abuse and aggressive behaviour

I found that some of the programme content stirred up difficult feelings for me and shone light on experiences that that had been confusing for me to cope with because my understanding at the time was limited. In that sense, the training, though rewarding, is demanding. I would suggest that anyone undertaking the programme allows for plenty of gentle breathing space on completion and perhaps some lovely treats too!

Others from the group with whom I trained have kindly shared their feelings about the experience and I hugely appreciate their honesty and compassion.

Cath receiving her MFHA certificate from Ant

Laura, a regulatory specialist, explained how she joined the programme.’I am an office first aider.  The HR department at the company I work for offered the course to first aiders and I volunteered. The course was not something I was aware existed and I thought it would be really interesting and useful to take part.’

I wondered if aspects of the training had touched Laura in the way they had stirred things in me. She explained that much of the course had impacted her.

‘One thing I was shocked at is the numbers when discussing the rates of suicide, if more people are aware of anxiety and depression symptoms then hopefully the right help could be put in place to help people who feel like suicide is an option.

‘I feel like we have all met people in all walks of life who have suffered with anxiety and depression or have lost somebody to suicide and don’t necessarily understand, the course puts how the people dealing with these mental health illnesses are feeling.

‘We touched on eating disorders in the course and I found this interesting as I think there is a lot of pressure, on mostly teenagers, to look a certain way, this could be due to the rise of social media over the years. It think it is great that Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 centred on this.

‘I found the course eye opening and very useful on how to approach people who may need your help and especially how to communicate in a non-judgmental way.

‘I think it taught me to not only look out for colleagues but also for family and friends. Sometimes we are busy going about our everyday life and may not realise that someone is struggling with their mental health so it is important to look for any signs.  Also, If there are mental health first aiders in the work place, colleagues may feel they are supported and can speak to the designated people confidentially.’

Laura feels the MFHA training is a truly positive experience. ‘I would highly recommend the course! I found the programme very interesting. Although at times it is hard content to deal with, it was delivered in a great way by Ant and also with a lovely group of people. I feel that everyone on the course will be great at putting the communication skills taught on the course to use if need be.’

Steve is another of the participants. Known in his workplace as Steve g, he added that he hopes his role in life ‘apart from being husband, dad and granddad, is to be a better human being.’

I asked Steve what prompted him to put himself forward for training. ‘It may sound dramatic but it has become clear to me how easy it is for someone with mental health issues to slip into a position of being suicidal. If we can help one person avoid this then it is a small victory, as the ripples of someone completing suicide can spread far and wide.’

I wondered which aspects of the training had especially touched him. ‘Despite being a wide cross section of society I believe the honesty of everyone during the training touched me. It is a refreshing change that people could be so open regarding how mental health issues touched them.

‘It has reinforced my opinions that most people with mental health issues suffer in silence. Part of this is due to a fear of how they are going to be received in public and more important to us the work place. The only way we can start to overcome this is by talking. This training has given me more confidence to approach people who are suffering and my management to talk about these issues.

‘Listening to someone can be the first step on the long road to recovery. If you can add appropriate none judgmental conversation and signposting to this it is a bonus. But the most important thing to remember is that we were given two ears and one mouth so we should use them in that proportion. My advice to anyone considering the training is to “just have a go” I believe you will not be disappointed and it may remove some of the preconceived ideas that you have about mental health issues.’

The experience of training with such compassionate people from different walks of life was hugely uplifting. Jase also attended. His motto is ‘Happiness is not a recipe, it’s a menu of choice’. He describes his role in life as ‘Helping others find their own kind of happiness.’ Jase kindly shared what inspired him to sign up. 

‘I am leading our wellbeing programme for our business and whilst I have done this in a huge global retail organisation, I really wanted to understand the role of a MHFA and understand mental wellbeing in more depth to inform me how I can move our programme forward and create an environment where employees feel empowered to discuss any concerns they have, that leaders of people are confident to approach employees where they believe there to be an issue and respond in a way that supports employees to make choices that help them improve their mental wellbeing.

‘I want to create an environment at work where it is ok not to be ok, to talk about mental wellbeing issues and help employees get the support they need to be their best at work and home.’

I asked Jase what aspects of the training especially impacted him.

‘The biggest impact was the exercises that enabled me to empathise with what someone is likely to be going through when they have a mental wellbeing issue. That was really powerful for me.’

I wondered what might have changed for Jase.  ‘My mindset. I was always very open and always saw mental health like physical health, that there was ups and downs and it can be improved and conditions managed. It just really helped me to understand what some of the conditions looked and felt like and how the ALGEE approach can really help in pretty much most situations and how it builds on the skills we already expect a leader of people to have. It builds on the foundation we have already started in the organisation.

 ‘If you think you already have a good insight and not sure if it (MFHA First Aider training) will add any value – it certainly will. We had mental health workers with us who deal with this every day and they had take-aways from this training.’

The class of May 2019, happy Mental Health First Aiders with their certificates

If you are interested in becoming a Mental Health First Aider, then please contact MHFA England. Training providers delivering the programme across the UK include Imagine Independence.

My thanks to all at Imagine Independence and to everyone in the wonderful group of compassionate people who journeyed towards their Mental Health First Aider certificate with me. The experience was life affirming!

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