Association of Mental Health Providers

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Psychological and Mental Health First Aid for All

– Dania Hanif, Policy and Communications Officer

Crisis events involving exposure to trauma and sudden loss occur in all communities of the world, whether it be a war in the Middle East, Hurricane Matthew in the Americas, refugee crises internationally, or incidents of domestic violence, bullying or vehicular accidents in a city neighbourhood. Those exposed to crisis events have an increased risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders, substance misuse problems, and general psychological distress. Furthermore, every 40 seconds somebody somewhere in the world commits suicide, with the young being disproportionately affected, and with suicide being the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK alone.

The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day every year as an opportunity to raise “awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilising efforts in support of mental health.” Each year the theme changes – 2015 was ‘dignity in mental health’; 2014 was ‘living with schizophrenia’; and 2013 was ‘mental health and older adults’. This year, as chosen by the World Federation for Mental Health, we are continuing the ‘dignity’ agenda by observing the theme of ‘psychological first aid’ and ensuring the provision of effective support in crisis response. The World Health Organisation makes clear that despite its name, psychological first aid covers both psychological and social support – just as general health care should not consist of physical first aid alone, mental health care systems should not consist of psychological first aid only.

Although, at least one in four adults will experience mental health difficulties at any one time in their life, many will receive little or no help when they present in an emergency due to ignorance, poor knowledge, stigma and discrimination. The results of the Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing [England], published recently by NHS Digital shows about a third [31%] of adults surveyed reported having experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Among women, the likelihood of screening positive for post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] was high among 16-24 year olds and then declined with age. In men, the rate remained relatively consistent for age groups between 16 and 64, only declining in much later life.

Betty Kitchener, the Co-founder of the first Mental Health First Aid Programme in Australia, states mental health first aid as being the help that is offered to a person developing a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or a person in a mental health crisis. It is the first aid that is given until appropriate professional help is received or until the crisis is resolved. Whilst, mental health first aid will typically be offered by someone who is not a mental health professional, the overall mental health and psychosocial response to crises and trauma needs to be multi-sectorial, with the responsibility not just falling to the emergency services or mental health trusts. Provision for the right support when people experience the stress of traumatic events needs to be available, and this cannot be purely clinical but must link into wider holistic care. Whilst, psychological first aid should be scaled up widely, psychological first aid needs to be a component of the overall response to ensure a person gets appropriate professional help and support.

We know that there can be no health without mental health, and psychological and mental health first aid should be available to all. So with this theme, the aim is to provide basic psychological and mental health first aid; address the stigma associated with mental health; empower people to take action; spread understanding of the equal importance of mental and physical health; develop best practice in psychological and mental health first aid; and provide culturally sensitive learning materials.

Psychological and mental distress can happen anywhere, to anyone and so, Psychological and Mental Health First Aid is potentially a life-saving skill – a skill that any one of us can use to help a person in crisis. So on this World Mental Health Day it is not just vital that mental health concerns are recognised as an integral part of overall health, but in the long-term there is a parity for mental health alongside physical health.