Martin Baker discusses how his MHFA training has equipped his ongoing work for mental health education. Martin is a registered Champion of the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign and a member of Stigma Fighters and the NoStigmas Project. With his best friend Fran Houston he is writing a book about how to be a supportive friend to someone who lives with mental illness. His mental health blog can be found at gumonmyshoe.com, and he is active on Twitter @GumOnMyShoeBook and Facebook.
I live in Newcastle upon Tyne, and I am care-giver to my best friend Fran who lives three thousand miles away in the US. Fran lives with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia.
I had never heard of Mental Health First Aid until I attended a Time to Change event at the end of 2013. I wanted to know more about their work on stigma and mental illness. I also wanted to connect locally with people who had some experiences in common with me, or with Fran, or some of my other friends who live with mental illness. I got chatting to someone who said if I was interested in mental health I could do no better than take the MHFA course.
Everyone has heard of first aid. Even if they’ve never taken it themselves, they know there is a first aid course you can take to learn how to help people, and maybe even save a life. But Mental Health First Aid? I’d never heard of it. I was nervous about taking the course, because I’d never done anything like it before, but there was no need to be nervous at all. There were thirteen of us in the class, plus two fabulous trainers: Rob and Bridget from Health Works. I think I was the only “civilian” there. Just about everyone else worked or volunteered in some kind of support or social services capacity, but that didn’t matter at all. I felt welcome and very much at my ease. People shared as much or as little as they felt comfortable doing. Many shared personal stories of mental health issues. I don’t have first hand experience of mental illness, but I was able to share my experience as Fran’s care-giver and friend. My contributions were welcomed and valued as much as anyone else’s.
The course itself is very informative and I learned a great deal. But no less valuable was the opportunity to spend two days with a group of people prepared to talk frankly and honestly about mental illness and how it affects their lives. That’s something I had never experienced before and I think it is one of the unsung strengths of the course. The two days passed too quickly. Several of us said we wished there was more, because there’s so much to learn and to share about mental health. It affects us all, in one way or another.
I came away feeling more confident and equipped to talk about mental health topics, no matter the setting. Since taking the class I have addressed the Mental Health and Wellness team at a leading UK bank, and have spoken on local radio and podcasts. I have also started an in-house mental health social media group at the company I work for. Even more important really are the one-to-one conversations I’ve had, both face-to-face and online, and the friendships I’ve made, as a direct result of feeling more able to talk about mental health.
It has opened my eyes - and my heart - to what mental health means, and how important it is to be aware and open to those who may be in pain or struggling. The course does not make me an expert. It doesn’t mean I always know what to say to someone, or how to help. Of course not. But it has helped broaden my outlook and skills so I am more able to be there for others. I am also more aware of my own mental health and general well-being.
I tell everyone I can about MHFA. It deserves to be far more widely known about than it is. Everyone could benefit from it, and it’s great there are different versions of the training targeted to different audiences.