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The big benefits of mental health first aid in the workplace

04 September 2015

September 2015 Ruby Of The Month Betty Kitchener June 2013 600Px Newsletter And Home Page

“If you think about our health knowledge, the average person knows what the symptoms of a heart attack are and knows where to go if they develop chest pains,” says Betty Kitchener (above), CEO Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Australia and an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence award winner.

“I want people to recognise mental illness at that same level and with the same lack of stigma. Because,” she continues, “across our lifetime most of us aren’t going to come across someone who’s had a cardiac arrest or a respiratory arrest. We’re much more likely to come across somebody who is troubled by mental health problems.” 

For many people who have mental illness, it is support, non-judgmental listening, and the encouragement to try and get appropriate professional and other help that can make a positive contribution and a difference to the person.

“Often, the system lets people down,” says Betty who has had episodes of depression and has twice been hospitalised for her illness.

“Hospitalisation was necessary to keep me safe at a time when I was not responsible but I can’t say that the system was helpful in my recovery journey.

“There are, however, wonderful individuals working out there,” Betty continues, “and finding them can make all the difference but it’s often pot luck. It’s especially difficult when you are in a state where you can’t think clearly, you can’t make informed or reasonable decisions. I know myself, and there are many stories out there, that the stigma attached to having a mental health problem or crises doesn’t just happen in the public sphere where you might expect people not to understand. It happens a lot within the medical profession and within mental health area itself.

“What we need to encourage in people is communication on mental health issues in an everyday way – in a similar way we might speak about someone having the flu. That sort of communication supports people early on when they are in a position to make informed decisions around treatment and support options. In the workplace, things are getting better but there’s still room for improvement. Some workplaces appoint mental health first aid officers alongside their first aid officers.”

MHFA is modelled on public education programs such as regular First Aid, which is run by Red Cross and St John.

The mental health literacy research carried out by MHFA Australia as well as Betty’s husband Tony Jorm, a professor in mental health research at the University of Melbourne, helps to regularly update the program and curriculum.

Tony’s research focuses on building the community's capacity for prevention and early intervention with mental disorders.

Since the course began – 15 years ago - MHFA has trained two percent of the adult Australian population, around 375,000 people.

The program also operates overseas, training people in over 20 countries, including the UK, US and Canada.

MHFA is early intervention with mental health issues. It is not, as Betty points out, about teaching diagnosis: “This is a12-hour course to improve people’s awareness about mental health issues and crises, as well as to provide people with the confidence and knowledge to act in a basic first aid way.”

MHFA’s mascot is a koala bear called ALGEE, which is an acronym for the program’s action plan:

  • Approach, assess and assist with any crisis
  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Give support and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage other supports

(For more:

Of course, if an illness is severe, medication is the first line of action but many people will combine medication with other therapy. For those who experience mild to moderate illness there is strong evidence that getting out into the light and doing exercise can help relieve symptoms. What is obvious is that there’s no one size fits all course of treatment.

As to the origins of MHFA, they lie in walking the dog: “Tony and I were out one morning around the turn of the century when the idea came to us. Mental health problems are as common or even more common than the physical illnesses which you learn about in a First Aid course. Why do First Aid courses not teach about mental health problems? Why couldn’t we design a course to give members of the public the skills to help someone developing a mental health problem or who is suffering a mental health crisis situation and in intervening early stop the issue escalating.”

Fifteen years of hard work later and Betty, now CEO of the not-for-profit business, leads around 13 (mostly part-time) staff. A former educator, registered nurse, and counsellor, Betty’s passionate about growing caring skills in the community

“As a little girl I remember caring for my dolls was the important thing and I love caring for animals. To develop MHFA and get it going, I scaled back my paid work. But it soon took over my life. The drive to help people with mental health problems was bigger than any of my own concerns. We recently put the one millionth person through training,” she finishes, with a hint of a satisfaction.

The world of the not-for-profit is a place of hard work most often done for belief in the larger ideal and without thought for financial gain. For Betty, coping with the pressures means ensuring she exercises. Built into her schedule are walks with the dog every morning and riding her bike to and from work every day.

It doesn’t come naturally to her to speak about herself but that doesn’t mean Betty hasn’t established some clear advice for herself: “When there’s an issue get in and resolve it. By not dealing with an issue, you only increase conflict.

“It’s really important to work hard and exercise great patience - not just with ideas and other people - but with yourself. My next piece of advice is hard, because it may just be down to good luck, but marry the right person.

“Tony is my best friend, my mentor. When we met I really thought about what his values were and how they worked with mine. Being in a relationship where someone has a mental health illness is not easy. You have to really think: what does this mean, how will it work? You have to communicate and deal with the issues.”

MHFA guidelines for different mental health problems and mental health crises: