MHFA: research finds issues with use in the workplace

A new study by The University of Nottingham, published by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), has found that there are major flaws in the way that many businesses handle mental health. They discovered that there are issues with the mental health first aid (MHFA) courses currently provided. Many organisations fail to use MHFA as part of a holistic approach to improving mental health in their workplace, and instead simply use it to tick box exercise, limiting its effectiveness.

What is mental health first aid?

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training programme was first developed to train the public in providing help to adults with mental ill-health problems.

The average price per person is around £100-300.

MHFA is an awareness based only programme covering issues like depression, anxiety, psychosis, substance misuse, alcohol misuse, trauma, and suicide.

Most have a 5-point action plan that follows ALGEE (assess risk of harm, listen non-judgementally, give reassurance and information, encourage them to get appropriate help, encourage self-help strategies).

The HSE review on MHFA

Following further research, the HSE has found:

  • There are only a small number of published occupational studies that have addressed mental health first aid (MHFA) and these had design and quality limitations.
  • There is limited evidence that the content of MHFA training has been adapted for workplace circumstances.
  • There is consistent evidence that MHFA training raises employees’ awareness of mental ill-health conditions, including signs and symptoms.
  • There is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental illhealth.
  • There is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organisational management of mental health in workplaces.

What’s wrong with only using MHFA?

One particularly interesting finding was that some mental health first aiders felt unsupported in their role. Head of Advice and Practice at IOSH, Duncan Spencer, has said that “we also found examples where staff felt unsupported and where, for example, they had co-workers contacting them outside working hours: there were significant issues around lack of clarity with boundaries and potential safety concerns for the trained person”.

In a position that is meant to improve workplace mental health, it is clearly imperative that mental health first aiders do not suffer as a result of their role and need to be given the appropriate support.

On a positive note, the research did find that MHFA is beneficial in raising awareness of mental health. However, the researchers were concerned that it may not be the best way to raise awareness and may not be the most cost-effective solution for an organisation.

So, what can we do?

The researchers suggested that MHFA training should provide refresher courses. This would allow mental health first aiders to refresh and update their skills. They also recommend that much more research is done into MHFA, as it is a vastly under-researched area.

After meeting with a range of experts to discuss this research, Duncan Spencer summarised all of these issues, saying “Today’s discussion highlighted the benefits of mental health first aid and some of the pitfalls if it isn’t made a part of a holistic approach.”

Overall, the research shows that MHFA needs to be applied as part of a comprehensive and well-rounded strategy to improve mental health. Otherwise, its effectiveness is limited and can even put a mental strain on the mental health first aiders.

IOSH will deliver new guidance to the health and safety businesses following the research.

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Nottingham University Report – PDF