Take Action: Mental Health First Aid Training

Mental health + Physical health = Wellbeing

In 2019 it will become mandatory for all expedition leaders working with World Challenge to have completed a 2 day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training course.  This brings mental health into line with the standard 2 day Outdoor First Aid certificates we all need as outdoor instructors working in the UK.  As far as I am aware World Challenge are the first major outdoor provider to make this commitment, making them sector leading.  But even since writing this I have been contacted by STC expeditions who are also starting to run Mental Health training courses as an option for their teachers heading off on expedition. With major providers taking the lead, hopefully others will follow suit.

In the same way that we look after our bodies to stay physically healthy, it makes sense that we pay the same attention and care to our mental health.  As professionals working with groups from all walks of life and with diverse experiences and backgrounds, it is expected that if a participant in our care suffers a physical injury we should be able to administer first aid and help that person to safety.  But we spend the vast majority of our time engaging and communicating with people, often supporting them in challenging situations and encouraging them out of their comfort  zones.  At it's simplest, participating in outdoor activities can impact massively on our mental health.  Whether that impact becomes positive or not depends on how we respond, which requires the knowledge, skills and confidence to provide appropriate support.  

But as with physical health, the mental health issues we are sometimes faced with can be more complex, requiring specific training to enable us to respond effectively to help that person and offer them the right support.  

In an average group of 30 15 year olds:

  • Seven are likely to have been bullied

  • Six may be self-harming

  • One could have experienced the death of a parent.

Breaking Taboos

Suicide is not a word we hear spoken out loud very often and when it is, it is usually in hushed tones, and yet "for those aged 5-19 Suicide is the second most common cause of death".  I was shocked when I learnt this statistic and yet because we don't talk about suicide, the majority of us don't have the understanding to provide support to someone contemplating taking their own life.  Through attending a MHFA course we are offered a space where we can ask difficult questions and begin to break down some of the taboos surrounding mental health.  Learning that it is OK to ask whether an individual is having suicidal thoughts, and that this question can be the first step towards that person seeking help, is an essential part of the training.

Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and psychosis are all areas that we discussed openly, learning that despite diagnosis, symptoms often do not fit easily into one illness and that also every individual will need to find their own methods for recovery and coping mechanisms, which may consist of counselling, other forms of therapy and/or medication.  Mental Health First Aid focuses on being able to approach someone in crisis, actively listening to that person and signposting.  Knowing that someone is listening to you and that they are going to support you when seeking professional help is fundamental.

Fortunately society is becoming more aware and open about mental health issues, but there are still a lot of misconceptions.  If more of us choose to participate in MHFA training then many of these misconceptions and stereotypes can be addressed and changed through educating ourselves and others.  This will make us more prepared when a participant on expedition, out on the hill, climbing at the crag, paddling one of our many waterways etc comes to us with a mental health issue and will enable us to offer meaningful support.

Self Care

One of the major learning points I took away from the MHFA course was how to practice self care and encourage/enable self care with others.  When we have good mental wellbeing we are often practicing good self care by participating in activities we enjoy that help to make us feel positive, valued and productive.  But mental health is dynamic for all of us and remembering to continue with these things when we are feeling low or are going through periods of poor mental health can be challenging.  By creating self care plans we can put strategies in place that enable us to take positive action for ourselves during periods of low mental wellbeing.  At present I have used verbal self-care plans with groups, which we discuss during planning stages and reviews but there are plenty of templates out there that you could use to create written self-care plans, that can then be referred back to when needed.

I also created a poster for South Wales Outdoor Activity Providers Group (SWOAPG) that highlights 5 ways we can use the outdoors to enhance wellbeing.

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Take Action

  • By signing up to a MHFA Training course you can start to develop your own toolkit for supporting those in crisis and self care. World Challenge are running excellent MHFA certified courses with Stu Skinner that are tailored to expedition life but any youth focused 2 day MHFA course is a great start!

  • Sign the petition to make it compulsory for all workplaces to introduce Mental Health First Aiders.

  • Help to challenge and change misconceptions and discriminatory behaviour. Practice active listening and promote the benefits of outdoor activities for holistic wellbeing.

  • Make yourself available to listen for those that need it and signpost them to one of the many organisations out there to help or to their GP.

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