To celebrate the youth theme of World Mental Health Day 2018, we caught up with Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor and MHFA England National Trainer, Belinda Heaven. Here we find out about her journey and why she is passionate about her work sharing Mental Health First Aid skills.

How did you first get involved in mental health first aid? 

I’m a nurse by background and spent 10 years working as a school nurse. It was a different role then and included working with children on PSHE programmes rather than the focus being exclusively on child protection as it is today. It was through this experience that I completed a BSc honours degree in The Health and Wellbeing of School aged children and Young People.

The practice educator role (PGCHE) followed this, which led me into work as a mental and emotional consultant for the Healthy School’s Partnership with the local authority in Gloucestershire from 2004 until 2010. During this time, I developed an extensive number of training packages and resources for schools and other settings and I also had two books published called Emotional and Mental Wellbeing and The Mental Health Handbook for Primary School. 
Sadly, central funding was withdrawn from this partnership, and I was made redundant. Luckily just before this happened the MHFA course floated across my desk and grabbed my attention and I trained to be a Youth MHFA instructor.

How do you explain Mental Health First Aid to people? 

We explore with people the meaning of mental health, introducing them to the idea that we all have mental health, whether we are mentally flourishing or vulnerable. We share the important message that people can and do recover. It’s about myth busting and normalising conversations around mental health. 

We don’t teach people how to diagnose mental health conditions. However we recognise that school staff are best placed to notice subtle changes in behaviour or demeanour of their students, therefore we encourage people not to be afraid to have conversations and the importance of listening skills. Good listening is really the key. We need to listen to what young people have to say in a non-judgemental way. 

As part of the course, we also teach people how and when to signpost to other organisations to enable schools, for example, to build up their own mental health toolkit. Time is also spent on what should and shouldn’t remain confidential. For example, if a student says they feel suicidal, we have a moral obligation to share that information.  

For you, what are the main benefits of Mental Health First Aid training? 

Mental Health First Aid is evidence-based, insights-driven and part of a globally recognised programme. It is also being constantly evaluated, refined and improved to work better. 

The training is really about empowering people - demystifying what can be seen as a complex subject, giving people a vocabulary to use and sharing simple ideas and skills that anyone can use to talk about mental health. 

The course resources are another thing I get great feedback on – school staff find the course manual really helpful to refer back to and help them continue to improve their knowledge long after attending training.  

What do you think the future of the youth course should be? 

Mental Health First Aid is a key part of the future of early intervention - research shows that nipping issues in the bud can have a massive impact on a child’s life. 

In an ideal world we would have all staff in schools accessing Youth Mental Health First Aid because of the growing number of young people in emotional distress. It should be on a par with physical first aid training and I know that’s something MHFA England are working towards. At the same time we also need to make sure that counselling services in schools and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are properly funded so that supports are there to signpost young people to should they need it. 

What’s the most important thing you personally took away from the course, and why is it important to you specifically?

I was struck by the important messages around recovery and normalising the subject of mental health. I’m particularly keen on explaining the concept of the mental health continuum to people and it’s really rewarding when you witness the light bulb moments with individuals who realise that we all have mental health and it’s not a binary thing.

I’ve worked with many people who have experienced mental ill health, and gaining skills to apply in those situation has been really valuable. Clearly the more we can do to remove the stigma and discrimination around mental health, the easier it will be for people to access the help and support they need earlier.

Can you tell us about a time you’ve used your Mental Health First Aid skills? 

I’ve used my Mental Health First Aid skill on many occasions with family and friends as well as colleagues who have asked for support. 

I’ve also been very moved in the past by stories from course delegates, and helping them to move forward with their own recovery at times is really humbling. One young man on a course I facilitated a few years ago shared his experience of accessing counselling following the death of his mother. I was making the point that therapy is only effective if you have some connection with the person who is trying to help you. He realised he did not have this and perhaps the timing was not right for him. He had remained very angry for many years and asked at the end of the course if I thought seeing a therapist could work for him now or if it was too late. I encouraged him to try it and he was so incredibly grateful.

Finally, why is the work you do so important to you?

Where I live in Gloucestershire, The Healthy Living and Learning Team ran an online people survey where over 30,000 students took part to find out more about their attitudes towards mental health. We found out that the majority of students want to talk to someone on regular basis who knows their back story when they feel low. We also found that many don’t feel comfortable revealing their vulnerability, highlighting the stigma that persists. 

I want to help give these young people an outlet – everyone working with young people should be able to be that first point of contact. In sharing the knowledge and skills to support this I want to play my part in creating more supportive culture for young people who are struggling with their mental health. Often for a young person in that situation, simply knowing that someone is on hand, who has that understanding, can make all the difference in helping them feel able to come forward.

Mental health should be important to each and every one of us and a greater awareness of what it is and what impacts upon it as well as what helps is crucial for all of us, not least future generations.

Find more information on Belinda’s work via her website here.

For more information on our Youth MHFA courses, click here.