Mental Health First Aider course provides first responders tools to give vital help to those in need

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

First responders from the 100th Security Forces Squadron and 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department attended a two-day Mental Health First Aider course at Royal Air Force Mildenhall June 27 and 28, 2023.

The aim of the course was to give them the knowledge and confidence to help assist someone experiencing a mental health breakdown, challenge or crisis. Emergency services are first on scene in a huge variety of situations, and having the MHFA training encourages them to start conversations with people and helps take the fear and hesitation out of talking about mental health or substance misuse by working through an action plan to identify and address any potential issues, while keeping themselves and other people safe.

Those attending were encouraged to wear civilian clothes, and only first names – no rank or last names – were used, to ensure a level playing field and encourage those of all ranks to freely talk to each other about each of the topics.

The course was taught by a former British Army officer (who was prior enlisted and is now a reservist) with 39 years military service, 36 of those as active duty with deployments including Iraq, Cyprus, Germany and Northern Ireland.  She said her experience means she can relate to the U.S. Air Force military members and what they go through.

“I train them to be the first point of contact for someone who is experiencing poor mental health or mental illness. It might be that a person just needs someone to talk to, or they need professional support,” said Maj. Pauline Murray-Knight MBE, Mental Health First Aid England national trainer. “Our rule is to give a holistic approach, whether that’s suggesting professional people, such as a doctor or mental health professional, or psychiatrist, or non-professional, such as a helpline, support network, a friendship group, or hobbies – anything at all that keeps that person focused and associating with people,”

“The holistic thing is about body and mind; when people do a physical first aid course, they’re told how to look after themselves by keeping fit and healthy by eating good nutrition, hydrating, exercising and looking after their body. That’s absolutely identical for mental health first aid,” she said. “The principals of first aid are to save lives, to prevent further injury, give reassurance and support, remove a person from a place of danger if there is one, and call emergency services if needed – that’s absolutely identical for mental health first aid. In my eyes, it should just be ‘first aid;’ if you feel something, your brain reacts to it, and if you think something, your body reacts to it. For you to be physically healthy you need to be mentally healthy, and vice versa. The two are absolutely intertwined for each individual person.”

Murray-Knight explained that self-care is the number one priority when it comes to being a first-aider, comparing it to putting on an oxygen mask on a plane.

“When you’re on an aeroplane, they always tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before you put one on somebody else – that’s exactly how it is for a mental health first aider. I can’t ask you to look after someone else if you can’t look after you, or you’re not in a good place. Part of this course is about me getting (the attendees) into a good place, giving them the skills to look after themselves, and then they can share those skills with other people,” said the trainer.

The main theme throughout the course was the “ALGEE” action plan, to help a person who might be experiencing mental health issues, or developing poor mental health:

  • Approach the person, assess and assist with any crisis
  • Listen and communicate non-judgementally
  • Give support and information
  • Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help
  • Encourage other supports (ie self-help strategies, support of family/friends)

The first responders interacted with role playing scenarios, using the ALGEE plan to find the positive way to talk to and assist each other. The many topics covered over the two days also included: what influences mental health, crisis first aid in a panic attack, active listening, what is self-harm, and what is depression.

“As firefighters, we learn various interviewing techniques as part of our medical assessment, but when it comes to mental health issues, the actual depth that we go into it is a lot shallower than it should be, which means we can often go in quite unprepared to deal with this situation,” said Andrew Armstrong, 100th CES Fire Department emergency medical services program watch manager. “I feel like this course has given me a lot more skills when dealing with someone suffering a mental health crisis of some sort.

“It’s been very beneficial, and I feel that I – and anyone who has been on this course – now have a much better understanding of the range of issues that people can have, and crises that they may be in, and our ability to deal with those problems will certainly be of a much higher standard than it has been in the past. The information we can give someone who is suffering is a lot better now than what we may have given before; our discussion and techniques will certainly be improved,” remarked Armstrong. “I highly recommend that everyone, of all ranks, within the fire department – and any other first responders – should do this course, as I think they will all find it a great benefit. When an emergency situation occurs, it could be fire, security forces or medical who are first on-scene – if we all have these skills, I believe there is more chance to build a rapport with the patient, and therefore more chance of a better outcome.”

Due to what the emergency responders’ job can involve, they see and deal with a lot more traumatic issues than most other people, so mental health first aider training can also offer them support as well as the people they help.

“I wanted to come on this course because as police and firefighters, we interact with a lot of people and the situations we respond to means that as well as the person or people in that possibly chaotic situation, who might be struggling with some type of mental health issue, the first responders could also be suffering as well, due to the type of scenarios they have to deal with. For me, I felt like I could use it at work but also in my personal life, because cops experience a lot of traumatic events throughout their career – I know I have – and I feel like it could be applied to not just our work relationships, but also our friends and colleagues likewise,” said Tech. Sgt. Daniel Mawajdeh, 100th SFS flight sergeant, Bravo flight.

“I’ve been through courses before, but it doesn’t hurt to keep taking new courses to add tools to your belt. From doing this course, I’ve definitely gained a better understanding of different illnesses, or issues that might be plaguing certain people. Honestly, I’ve felt like this is the best training I’ve had throughout my entire career, as far as interacting with somebody who is going through some type of traumatic event or issue,” remarked Mawajdeh. “It’s very common for people to have some type of, maybe not mental illness, but something plaguing them in our line of work because we respond to accidents, people who are hurt, domestic altercations – sometimes it’s violent, sometimes it’s not; that kind of thing is not an everyday occurrence in everybody’s life, so it’s going to skew how they see things. It might mean their brain isn’t going to fire on all cylinders, so this is really helpful in how to help someone cope with that.”

Murray-Knight became involved in training with mental health more than 20 years ago. On Aug. 18, 1998, a car bomb went off in Omagh, Northern Ireland, killing 29 people and injuring 220 others. The bombing was classed as the Real Irish Republican Army’s (known as the IRA) deadliest attack. At the time, she was a staff sergeant, based with the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment in Omagh. In her role as the duty officer that day, people were coming to her for support to help deal with the trauma.

She was unable to provide them mental health support because she said at the time, she didn’t know anything about it. In order to change that, she began gaining multiple qualifications including mental health, suicide intervention and trauma risk management, and now runs training courses all over the world. She was awarded Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in recognition of her work as an advocate for mental health in the military community. Additionally, the Army major is also a cycling coach for the Invictus Games – equivalent to the U.S. Air Force Wounded Warrior Program – which links injured UK and US servicemembers.

“Mental health issues are common; everyone at some point in life will experience a concern regarding mental health, whether to do with their physical health, bereavement, employment, or family issues. But what’s really important to recognize is that if it’s stigmatized or internalized, then that can be damaging and it can stop the recovery of an individual,” explained Murray-Knight. “So, it’s really important that (mental health) first aiders are able to step in and offer support without judgement – we need to be able to offer that support and break down barriers. People will not seek support if they think they are going to be judged, or if they think they’ll be accused of being weak, cowards, lazy or dodging work. It’s really important that we recognize that they deserve care.”