Given tomorrow is World Mental Health Day, I thought it would be the ideal time to write about a recent experience that I was lucky enough to have. A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to be able to spend a Monday and Tuesday away from the office learning more about a subject that has always fascinated me. Two full days of learning, inspiration, fun and no little introspection. rEvolution had sent me on a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course.
Mental health has, in the last few years, finally started to be talked about more openly. There have been some powerful steps forward made by many celebrities with the bravery to use their platforms and speak out about their personal struggles. Notably, Prince Harry has publicly shared his many years of battling anxiety and ultimately his decision to seek professional help. And there are numerous cases from the world of sport: Danny Rose, Dame Kelly Holmes and Jonny Wilkinson, to name a few. By opening up and showing that anyone, however strong or successful they may appear, can be suffering, each story helps to defeat the stigma that is attached to having mental ill health.
With that very much in mind, rEvolution, as part of its ongoing commitment to the well-being of its employees, made the decision to have a Mental Health First Aider in the office, and I was the beneficiary of this opportunity and responsibility.
Arriving on the Monday morning was a daunting prospect. A medium-sized meeting room with a group of five others, whom I had never met before, and two instructors. Any nerves I may have had though were soon washed away. It helped that I already knew one of the instructors, but almost our first task of the day was to lay down an agreement. Top of the list: confidentiality. This was quickly followed by ‘openness’ and ‘being non-judgmental’, and just like that a safe space had been created.
To say that we only scratched the surface of mental health across the two days would be a massive understatement. How can you possibly address topics as big as depression, suicide, eating disorders and psychosis in anything near the complexity they demand when you only have an hour or so for each. The important thing for us as a group to remember, and our brilliant instructors were at pains to point out, is that we weren’t supposed to leave with the ability to diagnose. Our aim was to build the skills to allow us to spot potential signs of mental ill health, know how to respond in both crisis situations and simply when someone needs to be listened to, be able to point people in the direction of suitable support – and above all, be able to implement the A-L-G-E-E Action Plan, when required.
The easiest way to understand MHFA is to liken it to physical first aid and, much as physical first aid has the DR ABC (Danger, Response, Airway, Breathing, Circulation) acronym to help you remember the steps to take, MHFA has ALGEE. But aligning the two too closely is misleading. Yes, both should hopefully give you the skills to react in an emergency, but mental ill health can be a far more continuous affliction that requires support and vigilance even in non-emergency situations.
Two full days of discussing some very serious topics was exhausting; fascinating but exhausting. To break up the sessions we also took part in different tasks and roleplays, and there was a spirit of debate and interactivity throughout. This was fostered by our instructors, but it was a pleasure to be part of a group that embraced this and was able to share openly and listen non-judgmentally. Another of our tasks on Monday morning was to share some of our hopes and concerns for the two days, and one of my concerns was that the course would reveal some difficult truths about my own mental health. This turned out to be the case and whilst difficult has proved to be a valuable experience.
It is amazing once you start working through the list of mental health disorders how many of them will have impacted you, whether personally or through someone close to you. Over the two days, I repeatedly mentioned that I knew someone with a diagnosis of one condition or another.
Then, on day two we covered anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders include: generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), health anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and perinatal anxiety or perinatal OCD. As you would imagine, given the range of anxiety disorders, there are also a broad range of symptoms that differ depending on the disorder. However, it is also possible to suffer from mixed anxiety, which often aligns with depression and is the experience of a range of anxiety symptoms that don’t fit one of the above disorders.
And this was my light-bulb moment.
If I’m being honest with myself, I would say that I have known for years – and knew at the time – that I suffered from a case of undiagnosed anxiety. However, like so many others I didn’t want to openly engage with it and certainly didn’t want to admit it to anyone. It began whilst I was at university, no doubt linked to the change in environment and some less-than-ideal lifestyle choices. However, I was fighting episodes throughout my twenties. Having gone through the list of symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, I can hold my hand up and say that I have experienced them all, often many at the same time.
Crucially, this affected how I was able to live. I stopped attending lectures and seminars at university because they were the main trigger which significantly hurt my final degree score.
I certainly don’t want to apportion any blame to any of the institutions or people I interacted with throughout this period of my life, but what I would say is that it wouldn’t have done any harm if there had been better trained people around able to notice what I was going through. Ultimately, I didn’t reach out, and this was because of the stigma attached to mental ill health and my desire not to appear weak. Thankfully, I have now been clear from any of the symptoms for some time. This is in no small part down to a fantastic support network that allows me to speak about what is going on and any stresses I am under.
Which brings me back to the MHFA England course. If I can be that person able to identify the signs that I myself was clearly showing, then perhaps one other person can get the support they need and nip something in the bud rather than letting it seep into every corner of their life. As with physical First Aid, in some respects, I hope I never have to use the skills that I have just acquired. But the more businesses and individuals who are prepared to take on this responsibility and share their own experiences, the more out in the open these illnesses will be and the better the support we can all provide.
To find out more information about MHFA England courses, discover some simple steps to look after your own mental health and for free guidance on creating a mentally healthy workplace please visit the website at: https://mhfaengland.org/
Information and support can also be found on the MIND website: https://www.mind.org.uk/