Promoting mental health advocacy and first aid is a worthy cause. However, the movement is suffering from a lack of unifying standards or a curriculum for training providers to follow.

As organisations wake up to the importance of mental health support frameworks for their employees, it’s more important than ever that there is a national framework for the training and certification of workplace mental health first aiders and advocates. Without one, UK workplaces are at risk of creating support networks that are not fit for purpose.

The Real Cost of Poor Mental Health

According to research, absences and lost productivity due to poor employee mental health cost UK employers between £40-45 billion a year. As employers begin to catch on, the number of organisations offering Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) or Mental Health Advocacy (MHA) courses has skyrocketed. While it’s promising that these courses are being offered, without a national framework employee mental health runs the risk of becoming another tick-box exercise.

The problem of not having a nationally accredited framework to train MHFAs and MHAs is that some courses will not be fit for purpose. On top of this, there is no ‘fit or proper’ test to determine whether someone volunteering to become an MHFA or MHA is actually suitable to fulfil the duties associated with that role.

Why a framework is needed

The American Psychological Association’s ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM-5), is often heralded as the psychiatric bible. A lengthy tome made up of nearly a thousand pages, the DSM-5 is a collaborative project that has taken over a decade of international cooperation to produce.

Currently, the bar for entry to become an MHFA or MHA is minimal to non-existent. In most cases, individuals only need to attend a two-day course to be certified as a workplace MHFA or advocate. Considering it took ten years of collaboration between eminent psychiatric professionals to produce the DSM-5, the effectiveness of a two-day course can easily be brought into question.

Despite being in a position to advise someone who may be mentally ill and struggling, there is also no requirement for individuals wishing to become an MHFA to demonstrate that they are suitable for the job. There is no requirement for any kind of background check to confirm they are safe to do the role, potentially putting those in need of help at further risk.

Comparisons to physical first aid

To become accredited as a workplace first aider you must have taken part in at least 18 hours of study, usually over three days. Further training can also be required in certain workplaces where there may be a risk of a specific type of injury. MHFA courses are generally run over one to two days but a cursory Google search will reveal some courses run over as little as 3.5 hours.

As psychology is now so ubiquitous it can be easy to forget that our understanding and treatments of mental health issues are still in their infancy. While elements of modern medicine can be directly traced back to ancient times, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that psychiatry was accepted as a real medical discipline. Although it is a much more respected field now, our knowledge of mental illness is significantly smaller when compared to our knowledge of physical ailments.

Physical first aid has been evidenced as far back as the Roman Legions, where specialised capsarii would provide treatment to the battlefield wounded. Even things like CPR, which is often presumed to be a modern development, has been described by academics as far back as the 15th century. Yet, despite the thousands of years of accumulated medical knowledge, physical first aid courses are still longer than MHFA courses.

What can you do?

Obviously, MHFA is an important consideration for any employer. If you are considering investing in this kind of training for your organisation, make sure you carry out comprehensive research into any courses. Look for courses that give you detailed instructions on how to structure MHFA responses within your organisation, how to support your MHFAs and remain compliant.

While it can be tempting to want to implement something as soon as possible, being patient and researching a course that fits your organisation best will go a long way to ensuring a happier, healthier and more supported workplace for your employees.