Businesses turns to mental health first aid training
It’s great to know CPR and how to apply pressure to a wound, but Elizabeth Eldridge says you’re far more likely to need to support someone with a mental health problem than you are to stumble upon someone having a heart attack or falling from a tall ladder.
Trained as a music therapist specializing in psychiatric rehabilitation, Eldridge took a mental health first aid course in Halifax four years ago. Unlike other professional development courses where she picked up “nice-to-know knowledge,” she says she left this session feeling like she’d use the strategies in her day-to-day life.
Eldridge immediately applied to be trained as a MHFA instructor and began offering the courses in New Brunswick and P.E.I. in 2012. So far she’s trained more than 700 people across the Maritimes as a the owner of Mental Health First Aid Training: Eastern Canada.
While first aid training relies on the acronym “ABC” (airway, breathing, circulation), Eldridge uses “ALGEE” — not as a checklist but a way to cover your bases in a mental health intervention.
“A” is for assessing the person’s risk of suicide of harm. “L” is for listening non-judgmentally, which she teaches during the course. “G” is for giving reassurance and information in the form of resources that could help. “E” is for encouraging appropriate professional help, like perhaps talking to a family doctor, pastor, guidance counsellor or spiritual elder. The second “E” is for encouraging other supports like self-care, self-help strategies or suggesting you go out for a coffee to talk things over.
Eldridge says reading PowerPoint slides aloud isn’t a good way for people to absorb information so she teaches with firsthand experiences and role-playing exercises. One of her favourites is getting one student to pretend to be on a job interview while another student reads a script in their ear — pretending to be an auditory hallucination someone with schizophrenia might experience in a high-pressure situation.
“Not a lot of people can imagine what that would feel like so this shows them how stressful that would be,” says Eldridge, a certified MHFA Canada training instructor. “Anxiety often exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness so this really would be a true-to-life experience.”
The course also explores what it means to be mentally ill and Eldridge goes through everything from bipolar disorder and clinical depression to generalized anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, phobias and deliberate self-injury. Eldridge says her students are often surprised mental illness has nothing to do with being mentally healthy.
“Someone may be diagnosed with mental illness but if they’re maybe on medication that’s working well, they have a good support system, they have a job they find satisfying and they’re taking time for meaningful leisure activities, they can be mentally healthy in spite of having a mental illness,” explains Eldridge.
Although mental health first aid training has been around for about seven years, Eldridge says it’s only recently that more workplaces are shifting to value their employees’ mental health as well as their physical health.
“Right now there are a lot of voluntary guidelines for psychological health in the workplace and many companies are committing to adhere to those standards even though they’re not requirements just yet,” says Eldridge.
She hopes over the next few years, mental health first aid training becomes mandatory in the same way that a company with X employees required Y employees to complete first aid training.
Chantal McComber is a case manager in the Occupational Health & Safety department at Michelin’s Bridgewater facility. She and her team took Eldridge’s course last fall because they’re often the first point of contact for employees experiencing a mental health crisis.
“Learning the process allows me to feel confident that the things I say and do are going to help de-escalate a stressful situation and point the person to the appropriate care in a safe and supportive environment,” says McComber. “I was able to reflect on how I had been treating these situations and how making some simple changes in things like phrasing, body language and perception can lend to a more positive outcome.”
While many students introduce themselves and admit their boss requested they take the course, Eldridge says they leave telling her they found it valuable not just for the workplace but for their personal lives.
“I always say ‘The biggest risk factor for a mental health problem is if you’re a human being,’” says Eldridge. “They’re something that truly affects us all — 1 in 3 Canadians will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life.”
Early intervention is key, so Eldridge teaches her students how to identify and help someone in their lives who may be experiencing a mental health problem. She says the biggest barrier is getting the ball rolling on the initial conversation.
“You’ll often hear someone say ‘Well, I knew Bob seemed a little off but I didn’t want to say anything to embarrass him. I didn’t know him well,’” says Eldridge. “But if we’re all passing the buck then Bob isn’t getting the help he needs.”
Eldridge is running courses March 10-11 in Wolfville, March 31 and April 1 in Truro, April 14-15 in Amherst, May 12-13 in Antigonish and June 23-24 in Sydney. The courses are $175-$200 for two days of training and students receive internationally recognized mental health first aid training certification that never expires.