Monday 10 February 2014

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)

I’d like to share my experience of the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course I completed last week, because it deserves to be far more widely known about than it is. I’d never heard of Mental Health First Aid until I attended an event organised by the "Time To Change" programme, but it sounded just what I was looking for and I registered on the first available course. I had to take time off work, and pay for the course myself, but I can honestly say it’s the best investment I’ve made in a long time.

What is MHFA?

"Mental Health First Aid is an educational course which teaches people how to identify, understand and help a person who may be developing a mental health problem. In the same way as we learn physical first aid, mental health first aid teaches you how to recognise those crucial warning signs of mental ill health." [MHFA England website]

Four versions of the course are available in the UK.

  • Lite (3 hours, £75)
  • Standard (2 days, £300)
  • Youth (2 days, £300)

There is also a version of the course tailored for the Armed Forces. The prices I've listed are from the MHFA England website, but do check locally. The Standard course I did cost £95 for the two days (not £300).

Who teaches it?

According to the MHFA England website, there are over 650 instructors delivering the course in England. I was lucky to have the pick of the bunch. Bridget Woodhead and Rob Errington, of HealthWorks Newcastle, are simply exceptional. Having completed the course, I can’t imagine it being delivered by anyone else (unless maybe Ant and Dec, but they tend to be pretty fully booked these days).

Who is it for?

The course is listed as suitable for social care professionals, ambulance workers, nurses, school teachers, managers, as well as those with personal experience of mental illness, their friends and family. If you are thinking "I don’t really fit into any of those categories", don’t be put off. Find a course (there are some useful links below) and give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Of the thirteen in the class, I was the only one there in a purely "personal" capacity. The others represented a range of support services, including other parts of HealthWorks, which provides support for people wanting to make positive changes to maintain or improve their health, and Your Homes Newcastle, which manages council homes on behalf of Newcastle City Council. There was a great mix of personalities, ages and experience.

What is it like?

For anyone wondering, there was no role-play involved. There were several short exercises performed in groups of three or four. These were interesting and thought-provoking but not difficult, and fostered a positive atmosphere of sharing and working together.

The course is divided into four main parts. The first day covers depression and suicide/suicidal thinking: day 2 discusses anxiety disorders and psychosis. I found it odd that bipolar disorder was covered under psychosis (by definition only type 1 bipolar includes psychotic episodes) and mania/hypomania were scarcely mentioned. I feel it would benefit from a section of its own, but I recognise not everything can be covered in a two day course. Much of day one was directly relevant to type 2 bipolar, and very useful to me personally.

The value of the course extended far beyond the slides and booklet we were working from. It was stressed from the start that we were under no obligation to share more than we felt comfortable doing, but many of us felt safe doing so which added immensely to the experience. It really brought home to me that "mental health issues" don’t only happen to "other people". They are a part of all our lives in one way or another, whether we experience them directly, or in those we meet, know and care about. I came away with a deep respect for everyone there, and I am proud to count several as new friends.

And afterwards?

I think we were all sad that the course was only on for two days: we got so much out of it that we would gladly have returned for a few more sessions. Sue Field was on the course and kindly shared her experiences with me afterwards:

The MHFA course was a fantastic insight and introduction into mental health issues. I feel that this course should be compulsory for everyone as it looks at the stigma that is associated with mental ill health and how difficult it can be to be diagnosed with a mental illness. I haven't stopped talking about it to my friends, family and colleagues and it has highlighted the need for more services and support to help people to get professional help as early as possible. It has made me realise that I am passionate about helping people who are suffering with mental illness and am currently in the process of trying to find employment in this area. It was a very positive and motivational course made even more enjoyable by the fantastic course facilitators.

Rob generously shared his own perspective:

For Bridget and myself, talking about mental health is not a job but a passion. For more than five years we have delivered this training to hundreds of people and no two courses are the same. For some participants it builds on the significant knowledge and experience they already have. For other people it is a process of peeling back the layers of the myths and assumptions they have been told in the media to reveal a new understanding of what mental health is. And for some the two days are a safe place where they can feel that they aren't alone. It is a privilege to be able to explore these issues with people and we have learned so much ourselves along the way.

I wholeheartedly recommend the MHFA course to anyone. I found it built on my own knowledge and experience, and fired me to learn more. I’ve booked a place on an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course in July. Sadly, that won’t be conducted by Rob and Bridget. Whoever I get has a hard act to follow!


Useful links

Healthworks Newcastle

MHFA United Kingdom

MHFA United States

MHFA Canada


  1. Wow! I had no idea this course existed! This is awesome! I am looking at the USA site, but can't find a course near me :( This is a great idea and I'm going to be asking NAMI and legislators about setting this up for the State of Maine. Thank you for the information!

  2. There are instructors at Augusta and South Freeport, but that is maybe miles away from you?