Mental Health First Aiders in PR: on the wellbeing front line

As the stigma around discussing mental-health issues reduces, more firms are taking steps to ensure their employees' wellbeing. PRWeek meets four people trained in Mental Health First Aid.

Mental Health First Aiders in PR: on the wellbeing front line

Over the past five years in the high-stress world of PR and comms, the mental health of employees has slowly risen up the agenda to become a business-critical issue, rather than one to which bosses can pay lip-service just once a year.

According to a PRCA poll last month, almost nine out of 10 PR practitioners say they have struggled with their mental wellbeing.

As employers grapple with their responsibilities, an increasing number of agencies and in-house teams are training their own Mental Health First Aiders; staff volunteers who could be the first port of call for someone who feels they can no longer cope.

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, a not-for-profit organisation, has set itself the mission to train 10 per cent of the adult population in mental-health awareness and skills.

Although it does not have specific figures for the PR industry, MHFA England estimates it has trained 400,000 volunteers since 2009, 140,000 of them in the past financial year alone, an indication of the growing need for this support.

Vicki Cockman, workplace lead, MHFA England, tells PRWeek: "Awareness of mental health has improved over the past five years. The challenge now is to turn this awareness into action."

She adds: "Having staff trained in Mental Health First Aid empowers people to offer and seek support in the workplace. Simply knowing someone is on hand as a listening ear and a guiding hand to further support can make all the difference in helping someone to ask for help."

Mental Health First Aiders from across the industry share their experiences…

Ali Laurie
Ali Laurie
Ali Laurie, a network communications executive at UKTV, has been a Mental Health First Aider for 15 months

"In the fast-moving world of TV, we have a whole company of passionate professionals who may sometimes not be feeling their best, who may need a mate to help them through. And that's where our Mental Health First Aid programme comes in.

I'm proud to be one of 18 Mental Health First Aiders on hand at UKTV and we were all trained over the course of two-and-a-half days by Mental Health First Aid England. On the course, we learned how to implement an 'ALGEE' action plan to help support colleagues.

The A encourages us to approach, assess and assist, L to listen and communicate non-judgementally, G – give support and information, and EE – encourage appropriate professional help and other support.

In short, being a Mental Health First Aider is about being there for others and making sure that everyone knows there is support at hand.

When a colleague came to me because they were experiencing persistent panic attacks, I was more than happy to be able to offer some useful advice. We had a chat outside the office and spoke for about an hour, sharing some of our worries and feelings. We WhatsApped a little that afternoon and I shared the relevant links to our company's wellbeing page. I recommended the free phone helpline and explained that after a short consultation, they can offer up to six counselling sessions.

A few days later, they came to tell me that they'd booked in a session and, understandably, they were optimistic but also apprehensive and a little anxious. I shared with them that I too have had some therapy sessions before, so I could empathise. I think it's important to be open and share feelings – we all know it's reassuring to know we're not alone.

On the day of their first session, I checked in with them to see how it had gone, and they explained that it had gone well. No doubt they're on a journey, but I'm pleased and grateful that I could help with the first step and hopefully they know that I'm always here to lend an ear.

Everyone at UKTV can see where Mental Health First Aiders sit, because we have purple flags on our desks. And we are a pair of non-judgemental ears, simply here to listen, to care and to offer up some useful advice."

Nicky Young
Nicky Young
Nicky Young, group managing director at MullenLowe salt, has been a Mental Health First Aider for one year

"My working day began just like any other. I was sitting at my desk poring over emails, getting ready for another busy eight hours ahead. The email popped into my inbox and while I recognised it was from within the building, I didn't immediately know the name.

'Can we talk?' it read. Intrigued, I opened the note and it was from John*. 'I was wondering if I could have some time with you Nicky as I'm going through a rough patch,' it read. 'Nothing in particular has happened or gone wrong but I don't feel myself. I'm getting up early in the mornings – 4am – and unable to go back to sleep. I feel overwhelmed but have nothing specific to feel overwhelmed about. My home life is good, my wife is supportive but I feel out of sorts. As you've been here before, I was wondering if we could talk.'

After a quick search on LinkedIn, I immediately recognised John's face, the nice guy who always greets me when we walk past each other in the cafeteria. I responded with a 'Sure, let’s meet up and chat' and tried to prepare for our session in the afternoon.

I was nervous to be honest; I'm quite used to having one-to-ones with employees, but this was different. This was the first time I'd been asked to help someone around their mental health and, as a natural introvert, my instinct is to run from these situations. Over the years, I've learned that the fear goes once the conversation starts. I'd recently completed my MHFA course so was hopeful that some of the listening techniques we'd been taught would kick in.

We met in the best meeting room in the office – it overlooks the graveyard across the road, which to some may sound gloomy, but everyone in our office gravitates towards the peacefulness and light this space brings.

I sat next to John rather than in front of him (we'd been taught this shows you're on-side and puts people at ease). And so it began. I asked open questions and focused on listening and encouraging him to be open.

I shared my personal experiences where they were relevant and showed empathy. While I wanted nothing more than to offer a solution, we'd been taught that often all people want is to be heard, so we just chatted for 30 minutes. Our chat came to a natural end and I could see he felt reassured, that he was doing all the right things by way of self-care. I suggested he should consider training as a MHFA as he clearly was a person who believed in advocating for open cultures (he was wearing the Lord Mayor’s Green Mental Health Badge) and whose personal experience would undoubtedly help others.

The experience felt altruistic; John helped me feel good as much as (hopefully) I helped him. There's value in talking, even if it's just helping someone feel heard."

*My colleague's real identity has been protected

Kerry Prager
Kerry Prager
Kerry Prager, a senior production manager at Golin, has been a Mental Health First Aider for 18 months

"I didn't quite know what to expect from Mental Health Training, but found it invaluable to understand the mental health conditions that many people deal with every day. The two-day course was extremely intense and thought-provoking. On a personal level, it left me feeling emotionally drained, but it truly gave me a greater understanding of mental health, the possible triggers and red flags, as well as the tools, techniques and confidence to assess when a colleague may be experiencing a crisis.

Being a Mental Health First Aider does not give you any professional qualification. You are simply a facilitator for people to go to (or you to them), and to share resources available. Now more than ever I understand the importance of opening up the dialogue about mental health to reduce the stigma of talking about this openly in the workplace. I have also been able to support my friends and colleagues from a mental-health perspective.

The goal is to listen and communicate to make a person feel heard and supported in a non-judgemental manner. To keep having that dialogue with them, and to show them support and understanding in a safe space. A colleague may seem to be underperforming when usually they are seen as reliable, resilient and a good worker. Instead of coming at them from a business point of view to get them to perform better, we turn it around – take them out for a coffee, see if they open up to why they might be struggling.

It's our role to see beyond workplace reasonings as to why somebody may be underperforming. If their habits have changed, or if they really don't seem themselves, we ask ourselves and them, why? They may have experienced a tragic event, suffer from anxiety, or be receiving treatment for depression, or bipolar. If and when they open up, you work through possible solutions – to make it easier for them to adapt to whatever situation they may be experiencing.

I have mentored colleagues with various conditions, including [experiencing] anxiety, trauma, bereavement and depression. It has also helped me personally, with a family member who was having suicidal thoughts. I was able to talk to them to make sure they were in a safe environment, that they weren't alone and if I could call an ambulance for them. Without the training I had, in all honestly I wouldn't have known how to approach someone feeling that low. 

Having a mental-health condition should be treated with the same respect and care as any other physical illness. Just because you cannot see their condition, doesn't mean that it isn't there, or that it has gone away. Everybody is different, and everybody has the right to a career in an organisation that supports them both professionally and mentally.

It should go hand-in-hand."

Nicole Yost
Nicole Yost
Nicole Yost, co-MD at Porter Novelli London, has been a Mental Health First Aider since April

"We signed the Time to Change employer pledge back in April. We have had 10 volunteers from the Porter Novelli team, including me, trained in Mental Health First Aid as part of our action plan to change the way we think and act around mental health at work.

Our experiences as Champions to date have varied, from individuals approaching us because they are concerned about others, to directly asking for help and support with their own stress, anxiety, grief or other mental-health challenges.

We have also seen a rise in folks taking time out for their mental health, which I see as a good thing when we consider that data from Mind shows that the majority of people taking time off work for mental health give an alternative reason to their employer.

Being a Mental Health Champion is more than being trained to identify the early warning signs in people who might be struggling. It is about making everyone more aware and comfortable about the fact that it is OK not to be OK all of the time, and that can only be done by normalising conversations in the workplace.

We are just getting started. While awareness has improved within the agency these past six months, and some conversations have been taking place, there remains an issue in encouraging men, in particular, to come forward and to talk.

Since being trained in Mental Health First Aid, I've been approached by several colleagues looking for guidance and advice on how to look after themselves.

The next challenge is equipping those responsible for managing people with the tools to spot mental-health issues, and the knowledge, background and empathy to have those difficult conversations.

In our latest mental-health barometer, we were pleased to see our scores go up in terms of reduced stigma and openness to talk about mental health at work. We also saw some comments that tell us there are some parts of the business where more needs to be done in tackling this issue, in spotting the warning signs and supporting one another better.

Some of those comments stung because we want to be better and, while we are doing a lot in the right direction, what is clear is that the more we shine a light on this issue the more we see there is more to be done.

We now need to train all our line managers in how to support people with mental-health issues and continue to discuss our experiences as Mental Health Champions to create a safe space for all our people to talk and to get the help they may need.

We are not doing any of this as a box-tick exercise; we are doing this because we genuinely believe it is important for our people."

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