Have you ever heard of Mental Health First Aid? I hadn’t either until earlier this year, normal First Aid, of course but one specifically for mental health – nope. Just like standard First Aid, it is a valuable resource to have with the hopes of never having to use it. In the spirit of wanting to share something of value on Suicide Prevention Day 2020, I invite you to consider learning more about mental health first aid and other resources, wherever you live in the world.
What is Mental Health First Aid?
“Mental health first aid (MHFA) is the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis is resolved. The aims of Mental Health First Aid are to :
- Preserve life where a person may be a danger to themselves or others.
- Provide help to prevent the mental health problem from becoming more serious.
- Promote the recovery of good mental health.
- Provide comfort to a person experiencing a mental health problem. ” ~Mental Health Commission of Canada
The objectives may sound very similar to that of standard first aid – preserving life, prevent deterioration of injury, provide comfort and get the help they need. I’m going to make a blanket assumption that even if your knowledge of first aid is not current, chances are in a situation you could recall enough or act instinctively to be helpful – stop the bleeding, get the person comfortable, remain calm, call for help etc. Recognizing when someone may need first aid from an accident or injury is potentially far more obvious than being able to recognize the symptoms of mental health problems or crisis. Mental illness may not present you with an obvious wound to tend too. That is another key point of the training, is to teach you to do just that, then to be able to provide initial help and be their ally and support towards professional help.
Asking The Hard Question
Perhaps you are getting the sense or drawing the conclusion during a conversation(s) with someone that things are not good. They may sharing subtle clues, and the more they talk the more your gut is reacting that something is not right. In a situation of physical injury and or distress, you can ask the person – “Where does it hurt?” not a hard question to ask. The answer helps you to figure out what has to happen next. When you suspect that their mental wellness is jeopardized asking where it hurts can be an exponentially harder thing to do.
During my training weekend, we were given a scenario, put into groups and we were to apply what we had learned and share with the class.
The scenario my group was given was that our brother-in-law was not acting like himself. He had been drinking a lot more, sleeping a lot less, isolating himself from his wife and kids. His demeanor and personality were off and it had been getting progressively worse. He was snapping at his family, and when asked what was wrong or if things at work were extra stressful he refused to talk about anything. The family had a vacation coming up, which he always looked forward to – but this year – he told his wife that he was going to stay home and that she and the kids should go without him.
A scenario fraught with red flags and warnings even being a fictional situation you can infer that there is something very amiss.
I shared that I would lead with asking the questions about whether he was safe, thinking about hurting himself, and point blank – “Are you suicidal?”
This was met with resistance as being to confrontational, yet I feel that if we are brave enough to ask the hard question, perhaps the person we are asking will also be brave enough to answer honestly.
Of course there are other ways to ask that same question such as:
- Are you okay?
- Are you safe?
- Are you thinking about hurting yourself?
- Have you been thinking about hurting yourself?
- Are you or have you been thinking about hurting another?
- Are you having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of suicide?
I feel its possible that we stop ourselves from asking the direct question because we are afraid that we are ill-equipped to receive the direct answer. I am passionate about the fact that: if we don’t ask the straight up hard question, we may never truly know if someone has been or is thinking about hurting themselves or others.
The story tells me that something BIG is up, if I’m way off the mark, I can apologize, but if I don’t ask – because he’ll get over it, he’s okay or he’s just in a rough patch… then how can I or anyone help him? Maybe by addressing the pink elephant in the room he will feel heard, he will feel safe in sharing what is going on and be open to taking the next step toward wellness.
This Is Not a Pep Talk
With or without taking a course in Mental Health First Aid, the person confiding in you isn’t doing so for you to say some magic words and POOF the depression is lifted, the anxiety banished and suicidal ideation forever wiped from their mind.
Everyone can benefit from a reminder to look at the bright side, focus on gratitude, and take a walk in nature from time to time.
Telling someone who has bravely shared this is what they are thinking about needs an ally, not someone to “should” all over them.
Listening objectively to what they are sharing, not because you want to respond with the perfect words, but to be present for them and be perfectly honest and ask, “How can I help you get the help and support you need?” And figure out the next step, together.
- Getting a local crisis number and dialing for them to talk right then.
- Calling Emergency Services if things are imminent.
- Supporting them as they talk to their spouse or family about what is happening.
- Driving them to doctors appointments.
- Making yourself their ally.
In this unprecedented year that 2020 has been, having and knowing the mental health resources available in your area and nationally could make the difference for someone you love.