Making Mental Health First Aid Work

How do I best support the mental health first aiders in our workplace? It’s a question I hear employers ask regularly. Particularly since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

So, my ears pricked up when Tim Ladd, Managing Director of the mental health training and care provider Red Umbrella, told me about the work he’s doing helping employers to empower and support their mental health first aiders.

A growing trend

If you’ve invested in mental health first aid training for employees or are considering doing this, you’re not alone.

According to a survey conducted by The Guardian at the end of 2019, Britain is training record numbers of workplace mental health first aiders. The survey revealed that FTSE 100 companies alone have trained more than 10,000 colleagues. Small and medium sized companies are also appointing first responders who can be approached confidentially by those with depression, anxiety, stress and other conditions.

In other countries, mental health first aid training is also growing. In the U.S., it’s available to all New Yorkers as part of the City’s Thrive NYC initiative.

For organisations like Molson Coors Brewing Company, their ‘mental health champions’ – who are all trained mental health first aiders – were voted by employees as the organisation’s most effective wellbeing initiative when they were introduced in 2018.

Overcome the limitations

However, Tim cautions that in his experience it’s not plain sailing for everybody.

He says: “Mental health first aiders are a good idea. Investing in this training sends a signal to employees that you want to start a conversation around mental health. It also shows that you’re prepared to take a step in the direction of colleagues talking to colleagues without necessarily involving HR”.

“But it’s important to remember that those who have done the two-day mental health first aid course are not qualified therapists. They are volunteers that are there to support colleagues. We can go into a company and pick up wherever they are; whether they’ve already got mental health first aiders or are just starting to think about providing training”.

When you’ve trained with Red Umbrella, you get a red umbrella pin badge to show that you’re a ‘mental health responder’. If, once trained, a responder is feeling overwhelmed or is wondering “did I say the right thing to that person?”, they can call Red Umbrella 24/7 for a chat. Or they can access Red Umbrella’s digital toolbox. And if they’re overwhelmed or have been affected deeply, they can have access to one of Red Umbrella’s therapists and get professional help. This is all included in the training.

“But this doesn’t mean we’re more expensive” Tim stresses. “Our training usually costs a bit less”.

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Control matters

When he talks to people about what is and isn’t working Tim says: “The keyword I hear is empowerment. Mental health responders don’t feel in a position to really help”.

“If a colleague takes the time and courage to vocalise a personal problem, and now knows that a work colleague knows their problems, they will expect a solution. Part of the mental health first aid training requires responders to signpost colleagues to support. But this can be frustrating if a colleague is left feeling that they are simply being pointed towards their GP, general emergency numbers or Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)  – that they could have turned to themselves”.

To empower mental health responders, and also give employers more control over how they provide mental health and wellbeing support, Red Umbrella has developed a novel Care Coins system. Each Care Coin is worth £25 and gives access to a range of support and resources provided by Red Umbrella. “With Care Coins you’re empowering mental health first aiders with a solution” says Tim.

The mental health first aider can distribute Care Coins themselves, or they can be handled by a nominated administrator.

Keeping on track

Covid-19 has highlighted the companies that weren’t ready with mental health support. Tim says: “Some organisations have navigated their way through the lockdown extremely well. They’re the ones that had a big picture system in place. So, they could call us up day one and we were able to come up with remote solutions for them”.

With one purchase order, Care Coins can be used for a professional therapy session. But they can also be used for mental health first aid training or for refresher training. Or for onsite mental health assessments.

Some organisations train mental health first aiders but then lose track of them. The Care Coins system also overcomes this issue.

Tim explains: “We have made the system very flexible and totally transparent. You load all of your mental health first aiders onto a web page. This can be branded with the company’s own logo. You can then easily see who the responders are and how to contact them”.

Once it is set up, the system then allows for anonymous reporting. It also helps the employer to maintain accountability. The Care Coin counter drops when care coins are distributed and gives the reason for use.

Care Coins can also be given to help a colleague’s family members. They can be used to cover freelancers too.

The system can also be used to inform ongoing strategies. For example, at the end of the year an employer can see that they’ve got 60 mental health first aiders who spoke over the course of the year to 397 staff and 37% of them had problems with alcohol.  They might then decide to provide employees with an alcohol awareness workshop.

Innovating to stay ahead

With a client list that includes premiership football clubs and hotels as well as major corporates such as Virgin Atlantic, Scottish Power, Logan Air and Mersey Rail, Red Umbrella prides itself on its agility and ability to draw on a wide network of experts to scale when needed.

Having worked in the residential rehab sector, Tim set up Red Umbrella in 2013, initially as an ethical referral agency for people suffering from alcohol and drug addictions and eating disorders. The business quickly evolved to provide workshops for employers. Tim then set his sights on providing mental health first aid training better than anyone else.

As the 24/7 mental health support that Red Umbrella offers is far ranging, I asked Tim if his Care Coins could replace an EAP? His response: “It’s key that employers recognise that mental health needs a specific solution. EAPs tend to be more generalised and very limited. Organisations should keep EAPs for general questions but it doesn’t make sense to pay fees for mental health solutions that aren’t being used. They should pay for mental health services as and when needed. That’s the beauty of the Care Coins offering. Companies need specific services quickly and effectively, not general support that’s paid for regardless of usage”.

You can check out how the care coins work with this short video.

As employers and employees navigate the return to work – and suppliers of mental health and wellbeing services race to keep up with fast evolving needs – it will be interesting to see how mental health responders are given support. I’ll also be watching to see how innovations such as Red Umbrella’s Care Coins gain traction.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times


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