QNI Publications Manager, Joanna Sagnella, writes for The QNI blog on her experience of attending a ‘Mental Health First Aid Course’. Mental Health Awareness Week is running from 14th to 20th May 2018.

I had noticed the young woman was standing a little too close to the edge of the train platform. I hadn’t thought much of it because I was reading my kindle and because people do sometimes go too close to the edge, but I had noticed her and that thought lingered with me afterwards.

It wasn’t very busy as it was still early and I was sitting on a bench at Finchley Road station waiting for a train. Suddenly somebody screamed. I looked up and saw the young woman was half sitting half lying on the tracks. I looked the other way to see if a train was coming, but although one was due it hadn’t arrived yet.

I turned around again. The young woman lifted her arms in the air in a painfully childlike gesture and two men from either end of the platform ran to her and literally scooped her up. Seconds later a train pulled in, totally oblivious to what could have happened.

I ran to where they were and they sat her down on a bench and walked away. This other woman came over to her as well and we just looked at each other neither of us knowing what to do. I was so shocked I was shaking. The other woman was shaking too which was comforting. We knelt by the young woman, who looked in her mid-twenties and was so pale and asked if she was OK and she promptly fainted. We held her up on the bench and she came to again. She was tearful and confused.

A TFL employee came over to us and said an ambulance was on its way. He kept his distance though, as if she were contagious. We stayed with her and the ambulance came and took her away.

It all happened so fast and felt completely surreal, not helped by the fact that people were alighting on and off trains and going about their business as if nothing had happened. To be fair, if they hadn’t seen her on the tracks they wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I got on the train and went on with my day but was left feeling I should have done more.

Fast forward a couple of years and I was at my colleague David’s Homeless Health conference where a speaker was talking about Mental Health First Aid which made my ears prick up. Mental Health First Aid? It sounded like something vaguely new age but also entirely logical and so I found a course run by the St John’s Ambulance to become a certified Mental Health First Aider.

Our course leader started the course off with a bang, disclosing his mental health which was both brave and actually quite shocking. The 10 other delegates ranged from HR managers to IT specialists to Personal Assistants with totally different backgrounds, but everyone it seemed, had had a brush with mental health, either personally or with friends and family.

The style of the course itself was relaxed although the amount of information shared was significant. We were given two manuals, one a workbook filled with exercises, the other a chunky more academic book, but reader-friendly. The instructor dipped into these throughout the days but the course consisted mostly of him talking, taking us through slides, asking us for feedback, a good amount of role play – with at times some much needed comic relief – and some pertinent short videos.

A few statistics:

  • 75% of mental illness (excluding dementia) starts before 18 years of age.
  • Over 15 people a day completed suicide in 2016 in the UK:  that’s 5668 people. Compared with 1710 who died in traffic accidents in the UK in the same year.
  • Men between 40 and 49 have the highest rates of suicide.
  • In England, depression affects around 3% of women and 2% of men at any one time.
  • In 62% of cases, eating disorders are recognised before the age of 16.
  • People who experience trauma and abuse in childhood are about three times more likely to develop symptoms of psychosis later in life than those who do not.

The main takeaway from the course was just how incredibly common it is for people to suffer from poor mental health, from anxiety to depression to suicidal ideation.  Of all the things I learnt over the two days, a few things stood out. Grounding was one of them. This is where you help someone who is having an anxiety attack. You ask them to look around themselves and name 5 things they can see, 4 things they could touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell (or just 2 things they like the smell of) and 1 thing they like the taste of. This helps them re-focus and can help them from feeling overwhelmed. Having tried it on myself when I’ve felt overwhelmed since, it really does help.

Another skill was active listening. I thought I would be good at this but it was actually hard! It involved sitting at an angle to the person you’re listening to (45 degrees to be precise and never face to face which is too intense) and asking them open questions and crucially being OK with silence, which was disturbingly hard. But as we learnt, sometimes silence can be supportive. It’s tempting with people, especially loved ones, to want to solve their problems, to ‘fix’ them. But as we discovered, if you are problem-solving you are not listening. We also watched an illuminating short video on the sharp difference between empathy and sympathy which was another eye-opener.

I could list all the things I learnt but I would urge anyone reading this to find out more about the course as it left me feeling if not confident then at least much more prepared to help someone who is having a mental health crisis. And who knows, if I am ever on another platform and see someone too close to the edge, I will know to approach them and ask them if I can help, hopefully before something bad happens.

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