Imagine you’re walking along Magdalen Bridge, and you find an elderly man passed out on the floor, unresponsive and not breathing. What do you do? Basic life support is an important skill that does save lives in an emergency. It’s increasingly being taught in courses at school and organisations, especially for staff, and has even been featured on TV adverts. So you’ll probably know to call 999 and to give 30 compressions (to the tune of Bee Gees’ ‘Staying Alive’) and two rescue breaths (then repeat, obviously). But how about a different emergency situation?
Imagine you’re walking along Magdalen Bridge, and you fi nd a man having a panic attack, and through the hyperventilation, he tells you that he was going to jump off the bridge. You see that he has wounds – not at all life-threatening – on his arms, and it looks like he’d been selfharming. What do you do? Very few people would know what to do or to say to someone experiencing acute distress, clinical depression, self-harm, or attempted suicide. Maybe it is due to a lack of education or knowledge. Perhaps its roots lie in the British stiff upper lip. One thing for sure is that mental health stigma still exists; people don’t want to talk about Churchill’s metaphorical Black Dog.
A person who is unresponsive and not breathing requires immediate life-saving basic life support; there is no doubt about that. However, mental health illness constitutes a huge burden of disease. Not only is it the leading cause of disability worldwide, but in the UK, mental health problems affect about one in four of the population in the course of a year. In Britain, mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health problem. To some, mental health problems may seem unworthy of notice; it is not often that we hear of people with a terminal mental health condition. But mental health conditions do cause death.
Currently, the largest cause of death in 15-34 year olds is suicide, and this is largely due to mental illness. We carry on our mundane, daily lives, and we’re worried about not falling off our bikes on the High Street right behind a Brookes Bus emitting unhealthy amounts of greenhouse gases. We’re worried about getting too drunk and falling into the river and drowning (maybe). And yet, statistically speaking, people in our age group in the UK are most likely to die by suicide, due to a mental illness. Let’s remind ourselves that suicide is a fatal symptom of a mental illness.
Even if we ignore (just for a second) the fatal aspect of mental health conditions, let’s not forget the anguish and suff ering that people with mental health problems deal with. There must be something that we as a society can do to reduce stigma, improve understanding of mental health, and help those in need.
This is where mental health first aid (MHFA) comes in. One defi nition of MHFA is “the help provided to a person developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis” or “the first aid given until appropriate professional treatment is received or until the crisis resolves”. This is exactly the kind of thing that will help to reduce deaths by suicide, and decrease the burden of mental health problems overall. While I appreciate that basic life support skills and CPR are extremely important for people to know, given that mental health problems are more commonly encountered than heart attacks in our age group, I wholeheartedly believe that everyone should be able to receive MHFA training, especially our peer supporters and welfare officers in common rooms, colleges, and the University. It is exciting that there are now many organisations that provide mental health first aid training, with the most prominent being MHFA England, developed and launched under the Department of Health in 2007 as part of a national approach to improving public mental health.
The training is designed to teach you to spot the early signs of a mental health problem, be able to help someone experiencing a problem, help prevent someone from hurting themselves or others, guide someone towards the right support, and to help someone recover faster. The standard course provided by MHFA England is across two days and goes through the basics of mental health, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, and psychosis. There’s even a threehour version (MHFA Lite), so there’s really no excuse about not getting at least some mental health first aid training under the belt.
Let’s face it, university life is stressful. It’s worse now for students than ever before (probably aside from times of conflict/war). There’s more to learn, especially for the scientists, and then there’s the influence of technology, mass media, and social media.
It’s time we actually had mental health first aiders in our organisations to prevent burn out, especially for whom it could have so easily been preventable. MHFA will not just help to treat people with mental health problems, but it’ll also help to produce a more compassionate society and decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness. What more could you want?
I’m not saying it’s a cure-all for all mental illness, but so much more needs to be done on this front, and finally we have a viable, sustainable, and cost-effective solution.