While one in four Canadians are directly affected by mental health challenges in any given year, the pandemic continues to have an impact on mental health and substance use.
Talking about mental health, learning more about it, and knowing what to look for and what to do in a crisis is more important than ever. Enter Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). The origin of MHFA traces back to Australia in 2001 and it was quickly adopted by 24 countries, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The Royal embraced the program in 2012, launching public sessions and customized workshops for regional organizations. MHFA courses were made available to families and caregivers of Royal clients free of charge several times a year but the pandemic forced the program into temporary hiatus.
This year, The Royal is refreshing MHFA programming and bringing back in-person courses.
Jonathan Hyslop, a certified MHFA trainer who previously worked in The Royal’s Community Mental Health Program, believes everyone benefits from this kind of training.
To help explain MHFA, Hyslop draws a comparison to Red Cross first aid courses. Both are ultimately about recognizing an emergency situation and keeping an individual safe until professionals can step in to help. Both can save lives.
Standard MFHA courses teach participants how to identify the signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions and substance use disorders, as well as intervention techniques. The curriculum also familiarizes people with person-first language, widely considered by experts to be an important tool in fighting stigma.
For family members and caregivers of people who have mental health challenges, the course objectives can become infinitely more personal. MHFA isn’t just about learning skills that might come in handy in a fictional future scenario, they can be applied at home.
“Mental Health First Aid is not about teaching people to become therapists, it's to give information so that we can identify when people are in need and then redirect into supports that are available,” says Hyslop.
“It really opened my eyes to what our clients are living with and what our staff encounter on a day-to-day basis,” says EberleHyslop also notes the wide variety of mental health first aid scenarios we can potentially encounter in our everyday lives. He uses an example of a young boy who leaves hockey practice feeling sick to his stomach: Is he ill? Is it anxiety? How do we know? What can we do and how can we support him?
“We use Mental Health First Aid with family members, with colleagues, in a student environment – it’s being able to identify 'maybe that behavior isn't really typical.' Maybe something's going on, maybe I should call 911 because I've got somebody at risk.”
Hyslop encourages all of his fellow staff members at The Royal – many of whom have no direct contact with clients – to enroll in MHFA.
“It’s an excellent base for non-clinical staff – people who work in admin roles, people that work in communications, finance, human resources – the more information we give them, the healthier environment it is for everyone.”
Maureen Eberle, The Royal’s manager of human resources, is an advocate of MHFA. She says the course helped her gain extra skills she eventually applied at home. What’s more, it gave her a better appreciation for clients, families, and her co-workers.
“It really opened my eyes to what our clients are living with and what our staff encounter on a day-to-day basis,” says Eberle.
Hyslop has big dreams for the future of MHFA at The Royal. He is keen to build and expand on the course and offer it to the wider community.
“As the centre of mental health in Eastern Ontario, there’s a lot we can offer,” he says, citing the benefits that come with specialized MHFA courses for youth and veterans, for example.
A bigger question worth considering is whether MHFA should become a mandatory part of workplace training everywhere. Hyslop believes everyone should have access to MHFA training because the skills learned in MHFA can be applied anywhere, anytime, whether it’s at home, work, or school.
“The more people out there who can identify and support people who are at risk to themselves or others, the better,” says Hyslop. “To keep someone safe in that moment of crisis makes a world of difference.”
Right now, The Royal is offering mental health first aid to our staff, community partners, and family caregivers, but we are working on bringing back public courses as well. Keep an eye on our website or visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada at mhfa.ca to find a course right away.