This Easter holidays, we're taking a look at the day by day process of training as a Youth MHFA England instructor. Journalist Emma Ledger describes what she learned, the positive atmosphere surrounding the course, and how in just six weeks, she became accredited to train anyone as a Youth Mental Health First Aider (MHFAider).
Days one and two
Days four and five
Days six and seven
I’m pretty apprehensive before I arrive. The trainers from MHFA England's National Training Team (NTT) Andrea and Nick have been brilliant at putting me at ease beforehand, making contact by email to send info and their contact details in a reassuring, upbeat tone.
I don’t know what the other trainees will be like, or what they might think about me being a journalist. Any fears evaporate when Andrea and Nick give me a warm welcome, and I have time to chat to Kate and Sue, sat either side of me, before we start. There are ten of us in total, from diverse backgrounds and different professions. When it comes to introducing ourselves I find myself unexpectedly – and embarrassingly – crying when I share that I have a family member with mental illness, which is a big part of the reason I want to become an MHFA England instructor.
I have already done a Youth MHFA England course five years ago when I worked at charity Rethink Mental Illness. And until now, I didn’t actually realise the first two days of the instructor course I would be experiencing is delivered by two trainers instead of just one. And my experience is totally different, because I’m watching them knowing that one day soon it will be me standing in front of a group of people delivering the training.
Andrea and Nick make it look so easy, are faultlessly knowledgeable, unflappable, and offer a masterclass in dealing with group dynamics. The language they use is careful, deliberate, and inclusive. As we go through the course I find myself noting down phrases they say, such as ‘would you like to say a bit more about that?’ when someone offers a brief thought. It’s a lovely, open way to explore an idea together – it means participants feel heard and respected, and ensures the group as a whole learns. It’s definitely one I’m going to use when it comes to my go to deliver the course.
I hope that when I deliver the Youth MHFA England course I’ll be able to make people feel as welcome, relaxed and safe as Andrea and Nick made me feel. They never lose sight of the fact that yes we are learning the content here, but also how to deliver it. They readily share tips about how to manage situations that might arise using their 'instructor training hats'.
Some parts of the format and exercises are familiar, such as when it comes to us creating our four young people to place on the mental health continuum. I remember enjoying creating a young person with a backstory. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, or because the world is more woke in general, but I feel much more aware of my own prejudices when doing this. I was part of a group that created a white male in the category that has no mental health issues.
Without a doubt what I’ve learned the most about across the two days was young people and suicide. Before this course, I wouldn’t have known how to begin a conversation about suicide before this training. I’d have been terrified. But this session – though extremely difficult in parts – has removed so much of the stigma I felt around talking about suicide by reducing my fear.
One member of the group finds the content triggering and takes a time out, but is later able to rejoin us and reflects that this has been strengthening for him. It's moments like this that the group further bonds, as well as it being a reminder of how affecting the content might be for people we deliver it to. At the end of the suicide section I feel certain that if I found myself in a situation where I needed to use these skills, I really would. It has made me feel empowered that I’m learning how to deliver a course that really can save lives.
I was allocated Andrea as my Youth MHFA NTT mentor who will support me for the next year. The Two Day course has confirmed that I’m doing something incredibly worthwhile, something that I will be proud of. It’s like that old quote, 'the purpose of life is a life of purpose'. I want the chance to work hard at something worth working hard at, and Youth MHFA training is definitely that.
The plenary sessions were something I’d really looked forward to. First up was Rachel Egan who spoke powerfully about eating disorders. She was super composed, knowledgeable and adept at bringing out the best kind of participation in her session – such as a quiz at the end to check how much we’d learned. Rachel’s section on things not to say to people who experience eating disorders has really stayed with me. It really made me think about the power of the words we say. Of course, it makes sense that saying ‘we are worried about you’ can make someone feel like they are being ganged up on, even though it comes from a good place of love and concern. Similarly, telling someone who is recovering from an eating disorder that they ‘look well’ will automatically be translated as ‘you look fat’ to them.
Next was Andrew Voyce on schizophrenia, who I actually know from a previous project we worked on together for the charity Rethink Mental Illness. It’s incredible to hear more of his story, and his openness and honesty makes a lasting impression. He represents the humanity that’s often overlooked in discussion of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
At the end I was allocated my 25-minute session topic, which was young people and suicide. It’s a big, triggering topic that is close to home. But it’s one I’m passionate and want to know more about.
As a journalist I’m used to chatting to people I don’t know, but usually this is in small groups or one-on-one. I’m not used to standing up to deliver a presentation, and I honestly wasn’t sure how I was going to be when it came to my time standing up there. I consider myself quite a confident person, but I could easily see myself fumbling my words – or worse – forgetting something or making a mistake.
My facilitation task presentation is ‘young people and suicide’, I’d decided to focus on suicide and young women due to the recent alarming rise in the number of deaths by suicide. I had prepared by writing my slides and accompanying text way ahead of time, before editing it down as I read it out loud in my kitchen, speaking to no one. Then I did it for my long-suffering boyfriend Alex and trimmed it again before giving the content a final trim.
The thing I was most worried about was managing the time – too short and I would have to fill or admit I’d finished too early and going too long would mean I was interrupted.
I was second to last on the first day (day four) to deliver, and I was hugely impressed by everyone who came before me. To quite an intimidating degree. No one looked nervous, and their 25-minute sessions were well structured, expertly knowledgeable and full of personality. I am quite pleased I didn’t have an extra night to prepare as I’d probably have started rewriting my own.
When it came to my turn I was nervous but used the nerves as energy. I knew I knew my stuff and felt pretty confident delivering it. I felt my false waver a couple of times when I lost my way and had to consult my notes, and I felt an awareness to do things to ‘tick them off’. I think I could improve how natural my delivery feels, and relax into it more, but I now this will come in time. It felt great getting such lovely feedback from my peers and from Nick, a real boost that I am going to be able to do this for real.
In my 1:1 session with my NTT mentor Andrea afterwards she was really complimentary, and I can feel myself grow in confidence. In some ways, delivering the course should be easier than this one-off, because we will get so used to the content we’ll know it inside out.
It was hugely valuable to hear my peers’ sessions, take on board things they did that I could borrow (ok, steal!) and give feedback. In particular, I learned lots about young people’s self care, alcohol abuse and addiction. They’re all topics that further compliment the work we are doing. The session reinforced the learning that when we’re trainers, we won’t know what issues what the delegates might be dealing with, and reminded me how important it is to understand how triggering the content can sometimes be.
I can’t believe we are already at the final two days. The spacing apart of the course is a real strength, as it has allowed me to process everything, build on the knowledge and develop more confidence in what I know.
These last two days will see each of us deliver a training task – that is part of the Youth MHFA England training – in 30 minutes. I was allocated the section on self harm, and selected a section that I practised to hone it into 30 minutes. That process has been hard, and I’ve worked at getting the timings right as best I can.
I’m up last on the final day (Day 7), which is a challenging spot in terms of fatigue but also following all the nine other peer instructors who deliver their training tasks to such a high standard. It’s profound to see how far we have all come across the month or so. Without exception they display warmth, thoughtfulness, knowledge and great ability to present the content effectively. They treat the serious subjects seriously, but inject their task with personality to ensure it feels real rather than robotic.
My own training task goes well. I manage to pace it just as I had in practise, pausing often to ask if anyone has questions which I thought I’d forget. The exercise goes well and I make a real effort to really listen to what people share, as well as allowing time for me to summarise what we’ve learnt and ask for final questions. I still think I was quite nervous in parts which made me rush through my introduction, something I’d like to improve on.
We give written feedback to each peer instructor and give feedback on their delivery. It’s almost impossible to narrow it down to just verbal one word of feedback, which is what Andrea and Nick ask for. But the adjectives that are shared around include compassionate, memorable, engaging, caring, impactful and unforgettable. It’s further testament to how far we’ve all come together on this journey.
My final 1:1 session with my NTT mentor Andrea leaves me feeling really excited about delivering my first course soon, and I feel confident about ways to market and organise it with other members of the group. It’s been a powerful shared experience getting to this point, and it’s incredible to think about the positive effect this group of people will go on to have in their families, workplaces and communities to both help end stigma around mental illness and equip people with the skills to talk about it and get the help they need.