MIND exec's plea for awareness of "mental health first aid"

10 February 2015 -


As worrying figures emerge about mental wellbeing at work, charity’s regional CEO Andy Pritchard says improved public understanding of how to handle distressed individuals would remove stigma

Jermaine Haughton

A regional chief executive of mental health charity MIND has urged more people to take up “mental health first aid”, after helping to save the life of a suicidal young woman last month. Andy Pritchard – boss of the charity’s Taunton and West Somerset office – managed to talk the woman down from sitting on a bridge’s railing in the Taunton town of Obridge, after he pulled over with his two children in the car. Pritchard said that he was surprised by how other motorists either ignored the woman, or beeped and shouting at her.

In many cases, he explained, people are too afraid to try to help clearly distressed individuals. “I think there are a number of reasons as to why perhaps people didn’t try,” he told the Somerset County Gazette. “But what if that was a family member? You would hope that someone was there to step in wouldn’t you? Some people might not have felt confident in dealing with the situation or could have been afraid of making it worse – but even just talking to someone can be so helpful. It means the person who is considering taking their life can take a step back and maybe reconsider what they’re doing.”

On that basis, he argued, teaching more people mental health first aid would hopefully remove some of the fear and stigma that arise from such incidents. However, he stressed, greater funding is needed. “We do a lot of training with professionals such as people in the police force, but I think this is something more people need to know,” he said.

“If you can recognise the warning signs,” he added, “you’ll be in a better position to help someone and, perhaps, prevent them from doing something like considering taking their life. Sadly, the momentum for the training isn’t there yet – but I’m hopeful it will be one day soon. If we can get people talking about it, perhaps those interested will come forward and do some training.”

While government financial support for such initiatives may currently be absent, evidence has emerged to suggest that employers must start to take mental health training far more seriously. A January survey from the Institute of Directors (IoD) found that three quarters of businesses don’t even have a policy on the issue. And while many bosses pay lip service to the damaging effects of depression and stress at work, the survey of 1,150 employees and 590 senior decision makers in the UK discovered that just 7% of managers have discussed mental health issues with their staff.

Indeed, the number of companies who implemented fully-fledged mental health programmes was witheringly low, despite 82% of firms saying they wanted to build workplace practices that promote wellbeing. IoD director general Simon Walker said: “There may come a time when people are as comfortable talking about their mental health as they are talking about the going to the dentist – but we’re not there yet. Huge progress has been made, but society still has a long way to go in increasing awareness and understanding of mental health issues. Businesses have an enormous role to play in creating an environment where such issues can be discussed openly, effectively and safely.”

“We spend a huge amount of our lives at work and among colleagues,” he added, “so we have to take steps to ensure that the work environment – particularly in smaller businesses – is one where mental health issues are well understood.”

The breakdown of the mental health stigma – along with the shame that many workers feel about having such illnesses – could be helped by a positive relationship with managers and supportive organisational policies, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada. In its recent survey of 2,219 working adults in Ontario, 38% of workers admitted they would not tell their manager about mental health problems. More than half said they were afraid it would affect their careers, while other respondents were concerned by previous bad experiences of colleagues who came forward and the fear of losing friends.

CAMH senior scientist Dr Carolyn Dewam, who led the study, said that building trust with a manager is imperative to encouraging more sufferers to seek support. “The manager’s position is so important, and it’s really important to invest in training them,” she said.

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change – an anti-stigma programme run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness – said of the IoD survey: “While we’ve witnessed public attitudes around mental health start to change, these findings show how much more needs to be done in the workplace. However, it is encouraging to see that the majority of companies recognise they should do more and we have hundreds of examples of employers, from all sectors, who have already seen the benefits of implementing changes including mental health awareness for all staff, training for line managers, and improvements in the support offered to staff. There isn’t a lack of help and support available to employers – but we need to work together to bridge this gap.”

For more thoughts on how managers should address issues of mental wellbeing, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar.

Powered by Professional Manager