On Saturday, I started a course in Scotland’s Mental Health First Aid (SMHFA). It was a course that had been requested by a local food bank, and there were extra places, so I was asked by the people running it if I wanted to attend.
The concept of the Mental Health First Aid course was first developed in Australia, and as such, much of the material is Australian.
It’s delivered in two sessions, the second being next week. This week, we covered: attitudes to mental health, listening skills, suicide, self harm, alcohol and drugs and ‘recovery’.
The premise of SMHFA is ALGEE – Ask about suicide, Listen non-judgementally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage the person to get appropriate help, Encourage self-help strategies.
You are not a professional, and no one is expecting you to have all the answers (but through the training, we got some of them!). It is exactly like physical first aid – you are just the first person to respond. The person may just need to talk things through, or may need more immediate professional help.
I tend to live in a ‘mental health bubble’. Most of my friends online and in real life have personal experience of mental ill health. So some of the things people didn’t know really surprised me, and that felt odd. They were all aware of anti-stigma campaigns, but had taken away a message about anxiety and depression (what I call the more ‘palatable’ mental illnesses – because anxiety seems like an extension of worry and depression an extension of sadness, which is patently untrue – these are life threatening illnesses, which are far more complex!), and none of the ‘nitty gritty’ stuff we covered.
We talked about how some people think self harm is ‘attention seeking’ (and the stigma surrounding that phrase – needing attention doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human). And I told them how I hid my self harm (with varying degrees of success) for years. But that the last thing I wanted was attention. And about how it saved my life.
We also spoke about how most people who go on to attempt/complete suicide have mentioned it to someone beforehand, even just in a joking way. That talking about suicide doesn’t mean that you won’t do it, as some people (even mental health professionals) seem to think.
We talked about the link between alcohol and drugs and mental health. I don’t drink now, but when I was younger, I definitely used alcohol to self medicate. We talked about how illegal drugs can induce mental illness. Something I have some experience of from my time in hospital.
And, lastly, we looked at the idea of ‘recovery’, a word that usually makes me shudder. Very often recovery is seen as getting back to ‘your old self’. But, just as all of our experiences in life inevitably change us, so does mental illness. It’s just not realistic. And very often mental illnesses are chronic. So, instead, we thought about the idea of being ‘in recovery’, of it being a journey, not a destination.
Going into a situation for the first time in a long while where I didn’t know anyone was both terrifying and oddly liberating. Having had personal or second hand experience of all of these issues, I was able to contribute fully. I was especially open about my own struggles with self harm and suicidal ideation. And people appreciated it – I was thanked by multiple people at the end of the day. Was told that I had enhanced their understanding of the issues. I can’t say that I learned too much myself, except that people really don’t know about this stuff!