I’ve spent two days commuting in and out of London to attend a course organised by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, a training organisation set up in 2009 by Poppy Jaman as a Community Interest Company (CIC) with a mission to get one in ten of the UK population trained in the skills of knowing how to approach, assess and assist others who may be experiencing distress.

It’s been dawning on me for a while that what constitutes mental health is at odds with our day-to-day attitudes to it. If we know anything at all, either as someone with lived experience or someone without, very often that knowledge is coloured by stigma, hearsay, prejudice and ignorance of the facts. Yet because mental health is something we ALL have (the key word is “health”), mental ill-health is something we may also ALL experience from time to time (we all have physical health, but who has never been ill?). Mental state is not something to shove to the side, or hide under the mat (or under a blanket of jokes), or trivialise. All mental health exists on a continuum, they say, and it follows that our awareness of it is probably the same. Education is key, and self-awareness is the first lock to unpick.

It’s clear to me that an appropriately facilitated discussion of a person’s mental well-being belongs in a modern MBA curriculum because the manager’s (or leader’s, if you prefer) success depends on the health and well-being of the organisation, and every organisation relies on the health and well-being of its people. Mental health as a topic can sit comfortably in the sphere of Personal Development, especially as we define it at Henley:

“the identification and removal of those restraints that limit the likelihood of sustainable individual, organizational, social and environmental health and well-being”.

It also has resonance in and for other modules because in corporate terms the “business case” for mental health awareness is found in the estimated £34.9 billion of lost productivity, sickness cover and staff turnover annually in the UK. When people cannot work, the lost revenue opportunity is probably unknowable and the societal bruising is unmentionable. It’s an important topic for the university sector, too, as MHFA England report that 75% of mental illnesses are established by age 24. Meanwhile, 66% of academics with mental health issues say their ill health is directly related to their work, according to the MHFA web-site. Luckily, the subject has been broached, and an ordinariness of permission to talk about it has been made possible by some extraordinary and brave people.

Two days of training sets you up (on paper, at any rate) as a Mental Health First Aider. Actually, it sets you up to be much more sensitive to your own thoughts and assumptions, and to meet and greet your own history or encounters with mental problems. Full blown psychoses may be relatively uncommon, but nearly all of us will know someone who at some point has experienced something – depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, debilitating stress, there is a quite a list, that interferes with living life to its full. The MHFA course comes armed with a very hefty manual, which goes into quite a lot of detail about the many, many labels applied to the various sorts of absences of good mental health. It struck me that there were many cross-references and almost no two cases the same. I ended up questioning the boundaries between types, labels and names. There were just too many overlaps, and it was often evident that every person’s experience of their own mental state is (beyond shared biology) unique to them. Stigma is a label, but so is any one of the conditions (often called disorders). One of the participants on my training quite rightly brought up the objection that the use of the word disorder is pretty judgemental (question: who put the mental into judgemental?).

There is a temptation, armed with dangerously little knowledge, for us to start labelling others and diagnose them, and you really have to reject that inclination. That’s not what this is about. I found myself wondering what it was exactly that a Mental Health First Aider in service of? The lessening of distress, perhaps. Perhaps you first should watch the video below, which was not part of the training, but which puts the point of all this in a nutshell (no pun intended):


The point of MH first aid is not to fix; it is to notice, to approach and to be there. To be present with another human being, and to accept that, for them, whatever they are going through is a real crisis. Which response, care or support their crisis needs is another matter, and while you may help connect them to some support, almost certainly it’s not your job to provide it.

The main lesson from MHFA is that when we listen, without judging, we are able to let a person in distress know that they are being seen. That is huge. It could save someone’s day, or it could save their life.

The course offers some very practical tips (and an abbreviation) in a framework to follow, and this was reinforced repeatedly over the two days. I’d have liked longer and less formulaic exercises to work on these steps, and perhaps less of a feeling that the training was about covering the slides and categories of mental problem. Watching video testimony from people who had lived experience with various elements, however, was extremely useful and powerful. The sessions really took off when people began to share their experience and practice with each other. Our trainer was very knowledgeable, but I think the challenge for MHFA England as it grows will be to keep it fresh, and to stop it becoming about bums on seats with trainers checked on whether “the agenda” was covered.

I’ll close with two things. The first is a good definition of mental health taken from the MHFA manual (and one of several cited):

“…the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a positive sense of well-being and an underlying belief in our own, and others’, dignity and worth.” (Health Education Authority, (1997) Mental Health Promotion: a Quality Framework, HEA)

The second is that in the first session, we were shown a list of outcomes and objectives for the two days. Last on the list, almost an afterthought (we were told that it had been added over the years) was the positive effect on health and well-being of the person on the course. Of course! Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else. This really ought to be the first outcome on their list.

Written by our professor Chris Dalton