If one of your workmates cuts their finger, has an epileptic fit or vomits you would expect a first aider and a first aid kit to be on hand to cope with the situation, but what do you do if one of your colleagues was experiencing psychosis or a breakdown?
Sandy Scheib teaches mental health first aid at the Northern Institute and she argues that every employer should have at least one mental health first aider on site and preferable one in each section or department.
Mental Health First Aid Australia, which accredits the courses, already works with various government departments and agencies, including the Australian Department of Defence and the Personnel Administration Centre in Melbourne and many schools.
Awareness of mental illness and the impact it can have on workers, colleagues and organisations is growing in Australia and the scale of the problem is serious, says Ms Scheib.
A 2007 Australian Bureau of Statistics’ study, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, estimated that in any one year, around one million adults in Australia experience depression and over two million experience anxiety.
Poor mental can translate into three to four days off work a month for a person each person experiencing depression and over six million working days lost each year in Australia.
Mental health problems also have a direct impact on workplaces through increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and increased costs.
The two-day Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) course teaches people how to identify common mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse at work.
It also aims to give people the confidence to provide immediate help, cope with a crisis situation such as panic attacks, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and suggest where to get professional help.
Ms Scheib says what people find most daunting when they saw a colleague struggling mentally was knowing how to approach them – and whether to do this in the first place.
“Whenever I speak with people who we are training, their problem always is one, they don’t know how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illness and the other problem is, if it’s really obvious there is an issue they’re concerned about, what is appropriate action to offer assistance,” she says.
“The course provides people with the skills, knowledge and confidence to offer the help.”
The MHFA courses provide a mental health action plan using the acronym ALGEE, which stands for:
Approach, assess and assist with a crisis; Listen non-judgementally; Give support and information; Encourage appropriate professional help and Encourage other supports.
Ms Scheib says an important part of the course is to teach people how to respond when a colleague is in crisis, for example, talking about killing themselves or experiencing psychosis.
“It really is about expressing concern for that person, listening to them talking through things and facilitating some professional help.”
She says MHFA on its most serious level is about suicide prevention and she had a great deal of feedback on how positive the course had been in.
“People feel confident and able to approach someone that they feel concerned about, to check in with someone and see what’s happening for them and if, they’re in crisis, to be able to broach those serious subjects, People can do that both in their personal and professional lives.”
The course also aims to further reduce stigma around mental health and promote greater knowledge and early intervention.
“When we ask people, ‘if you had symptoms of depression, would you tell your manager?’ The answer is always, ‘no’,” Ms Scheib says.
“Mental illness is a treatable and diagnosable condition.”
A VicHealth and Melbourne University study found that job-related depression costs the economy $730 million every year. This includes lost productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism and government-subsidised medical care, including counselling and antidepressants.