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Ask the Expert: How can I become a Mental Health First Aider?


This article’s expert is training and development specialist, Sue Butterfield.



“As one who has struggled with mental ill-health, I have benefitted hugely from a supportive employer.  I saw recently that it might become compulsory for workplaces to have trained mental health first aiders, the same way they do for physical first aid.  This role would be of interest to me, what sort of training would it take, and do you need any previous experience?”


In order to become a Mental Health First Aider, you need to complete a two-day training course.  There is no requirement for previous experience, although an interest in mental health and well-being is preferable.

As a Mental Health First Aider you are not medically qualified but will learn to notice the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety and a range of mental health conditions.  You will be skilled in how to approach a colleague and open a supportive conversation and have the knowledge of where to signpost for help and support (from the professionals).  You will also be a general point of contact in the organisation for people who need support and guidance.

In the same way as learning physical first aid, mental health first aid (MHFA) teaches people how to recognise those crucial warning signs of mental ill health and feel confident to guide someone to appropriate support. Embedding MHFA training within any organisation or community also encourages people to talk more freely about mental health, reducing stigma and creating a more positive culture.

Organisations have a legal obligation to ensure they have trained First Aiders.  As you’ll see below, discussions have been had in Westminster to consider extending this legislation to include Mental Health First Aiders. The HSE has also recently updated its guidance to recommend that organisations have qualified Mental Health First Aiders in place.  To date, there are 385,000 trained workplace Mental Health First Aiders in the UK.

At In Equilibrium, we deliver a range of mental health in the workplace courses for those at all levels in an organisation.  These include the Workplace MHFA 2-day course which qualifies attendees as Mental Health First Aiders and the Workplace Mental Health Aware half-day course designed to raise awareness of mental health and increase confidence to support someone in mental and emotional distress.


Background to the call for employers to provide Mental Health First Aiders

At the beginning of 2017, the Prime Minister requested a review into how employers can better support the mental health of those they employ.

The Stevenson/Farmer review, “Thriving at Work” was published in October 2017. It concluded that a significant mental health challenge is faced by the UK and cited the statistics that 300,000 people with long-term mental health conditions lose their jobs each year and approximately 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.  A 10-year vision was set out which the authors believe can be achieved if all employers adopt 6 mental health core standards to lay the basic foundations for an approach to workplace mental health, with larger employers going further.

In tandem with this review was a report by Deloitte which estimated the cost of mental health to employers at £33bn – £42bn consisting of absence costs, presenteeism costs and turnover costs.  They also found that the return on investment (ROI) of workplace mental health interventions was very positive, with the average ROI being 4.2:1.

A year after the Stevenson/Farmer review was published, a petition with over 200,000 signatories was delivered to 10 Downing Street.  It called for a change in the law to make it mandatory for employers to provide mental health first aid as well as physical first aid.  This was followed by a letter to the Prime Minister, signed by more than 50 of the largest UK employers, urging the Government to make mental health first aid obligatory for all workplaces.  Although not compulsory, the Health & Safety Executive’s guidance was updated in November 2018 to include advice on how to support employees experiencing a mental health issue, including training staff as mental health trained first aiders.

In January of this year a backbench business debate took place in Westminster with a view to changing the law regarding first aid in the workplace.  It called on the Government to change the Health & Safety Act 1974 “via secondary legislation to provide clarity that an employer’s first aid responsibilities cover both physical and mental health and to add a requirement for workplaces to train mental health first aiders.” The motion was overwhelmingly backed by a group of cross-party MP’s, indicating their majority view that there is a need for first aid regulations to be updated so that mental health is treated equally to physical health in the workplace. Further update is now awaited.


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