Why a university is offering mental health first aid

Last week I featured an incredibly honest article by Michael Cambell, Operations and Communications Manager at Sheffield Hallam University, about living with social anxiety.

Michael has since caught up with his colleague, Laura Humphreys, People Development Advisor, about how the university is leading the way in tackling mental health in the workplace, and they have kindly agreed to share this information with us.

I heard about mental health first aiders for the first time at the Employee Engagement conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. I asked Michael whether his university has them and I’m delighted to be able to share their story to help you find out more.

I blogged recently about the new PRCA Diversity and Inclusion research, which found 90% of organisations don’t have a mental health policy, if you do and would like to share yours, please do get in touch with me.

Let’s look at what Sheffield Hallam University are doing…

Laura (pictured) has been part of the Human Resources & Organisational Development Team at Sheffield Hallam University since January 2014. Her previous role was in a similar Learning & Development environment at the Home Office.

Her role at the university involves the development and delivery of Learning and Development interventions with her current focus being on leadership development and mental health.

The mental health element involves managing the staff wellbeing site which hosts a wide range of support for university staff to access. Laura spends time working with teams in order to raise awareness about mental health and the importance of seeking support.

Accredited training
She is also accredited to deliver mental health training on behalf of Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA). Laura delivers the training along with two fellow colleagues who work within Student Wellbeing.

MHFA is the mental health equivalent of physical first aid. The training provides participants with the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and effectively guide a person towards the right support, be that self-help or professional services.

Those who take MHFA courses are not trained to be therapists or psychiatrists but can offer initial support through non-judgemental listening and guidance. MHFA training also teaches people to look after their own mental wellbeing and spreads the important message that we all have mental health.

Sheffield Hallam University signed the Time to Change Employer Pledge in 2014; making a commitment to both students and staff to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health and create a culture where it feels natural to talk about it and support each other.

With Michael asking the questions, here is how the conversation with Laura went:

Q1) Why do you think it is important to invest in mental health?

It’s hugely important to all workforces, not just institutions like ours. Some facts that we discovered when we were pulling our services together were:

  • 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year [NHS England]
  • Mental ill-health costs the UK economy £7 billion per year [Chief Medical Officer’s Report] Costing an average of £1,035 per employee per year [Time to Change]
  • 27-29% of students report clinical levels of psychological distress [YouGov]
  • University employees are more likely than many other occupational groups to experience mental health problems [University and College Union]

Stress and Mental Health is one of the top reasons for sickness absence here at the university so investing in mental health is an absolute priority to us.

Q2) What are you proud of from the work that has been done to date?

I’m really proud of how invested we (the Human Resources & Organisational Development team) are in mental health, we are wanting to train more and more staff; from awareness-raising courses through to in-depth mental health first aid training, we want every member of the institution to be included in what we are doing.

This extends to our students too; we are working collaboratively with our Student Wellbeing Team to deliver the same training to both staff and students.

What gives me a real sense of pride is how engaged the workshop participants are during the training sessions; people are really opening up about experiences and you can see the difference it is making.

Q3) What has made the biggest difference to your work as a University around mental health? How are we going to measure the impact of the changes made?

That’s a tricky one as it’s really too early to gauge what difference it has made just yet. What I can say is that the training sessions have all been, and continue to be, fully booked and the feedback we are receiving is fantastic. It’s really showing us that we’re on the right track and one of our next steps is to start looking at the impact of this initiative.

Q4) What advice would you give other organisations who want to know how to support their employees or students?

We realised that we weren’t experts in the field so signed up to the Time to Change Employer Pledge. They have experts who you can seek out guidance and support from. They can offer a questionnaire to staff/students that can formulate your plans.

No one-size fits all; everybody has different favoured ways of learning and talking about mental health so our Wellness site offers multiple channels to keep it accessible.

Q5) How do you define wellbeing?

Quite simply, Mental Health First Aid England underpins all of our training; their guidelines are – Wellbeing is rather difficult to define, but there is consensus around the following definition:

“Being comfortable, healthy or happy.”

Q6)  Do you have a mental health toolkit? If so, how did you decide what to put in it and what format does it take?

Yes, we have a Mental Health Hub on our Wellbeing site, launched on World Mental Health Day in October 2017.

It is broken down into three categories:

  • Supporting students
  • Supporting Staff (for managers)
  • Supporting yourself

We gathered information from across the entire university as there were many resources out there such as in our Sheffield Hallam University Wellness Team, Human Resources & Organisational Development, Student Wellbeing and the Students’ Union. We compiled them into this one central point to make them accessible for all.

Q7) Do you have mental health first aiders? What do they do and how do you choose/train them?

Yes we do. We run three versions of mental health training:

  • Introductory 3 hour session: Mental Health Aware
  • 1 day “Mental Health Champion” course – Higher Education version
  • 2 day in-depth course to become a Mental Health First Aider

The Mental Health First Aider training is aimed at student and staff-facing colleagues such as Student Support Officers and HR advisors.

We run them internally, but also externally in conjunction with Sheffield City Council. We are engaging locally by going out into the community to deliver these workshops to members of the public in order to raise even more awareness.

The Mental Health First Aider initiative is in its infancy; we will be creating a network of Mental Health First Aiders to create a culture of knowledge sharing and to encourage conversations around mental health in order to break the stigma around the subject. We are also looking to support our existing physical first aiders by offering them mental health first aid skills.

Sheffield Hallam really are investing in their staff and students’ mental health. I’ll leave you with a quote from the university’s leader, who has often blogged about the subject; Vice-Chancellor, Chris Husbands:

“In this world, it’s hardly surprising that we are increasingly concerned with mental health. Is it worse? Are we more able to diagnose difficulties? Do the economic, social, political and cultural challenges of our time make us more attuned to problems? Perhaps these questions are irrelevant:  we do need to respond. The University has invested increasing resource in mental health support.”

Find out more about mental health first aiders

Thank you Michael and Laura for sharing your thoughts via my blog, I’m encouraged to see all the hard work that has been happening and know my blog readers will appreciate hearing your story. Thank you.

I was intrigued by Mental Health First Aid England, who Laura referenced, I’d not heard of them before and wow, what a fantastic initiative! Their website is comprehensive, it is packed with tools and guidance to help, I recommend checking them out.

Here’s what you need to know…

Mental Health First Aid England (MFHA) runs courses to teach the importance of mental health across a variety of organisations from further education to the armed forces and workplaces.

Their website states: “Our training and consultancy is here to support you to manage wellbeing proactively and minimise the impact of mental ill-health on work and life. We’ll work alongside you to deliver training that complements and enhances your existing wellbeing strategy, if you have one. If you don’t, we’ll get you started on that journey and guide you along the way.

The history
In 2007, officials within the Department of Health were asked investigate the roll out of a mental health training package across England. Upon discovering that Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training, first developed in Australia in 2000, was being implemented across Scotland, a decision was taken to look at using the programme in England. Within the same year, the National Institute for Mental Health in England started offering Mental Health First Aid courses.

Due to the programme’s popularity, it was decided that Mental Health First Aid should be set up as a social enterprise. In 2009, Poppy Jaman, now MHFA England CEO, and others, were asked to lead the development of MHFA England as an independent Community Interest Company (CIC). Since then the organisation has gone from strength to strength, recently ranking in the FT 1000, the Financial Time’s index of the fastest growing companies in Europe.

What MHFA does
MHFA England provides mental health awareness training and consultancy in a wide variety of communities, including schools, universities, the armed forces community, businesses and the public sector. Through its in-house consultancy team and national network of over 1,300 instructors, MHFA England facilitates and delivers a number of Mental Health First Aid courses, including Youth MHFA, Higher Education MHFA, Workplace MHFA and Armed Forces MHFA.

Each of the courses teaches the mental health equivalent of physical first aid, tailored to the particular audience. MHFA England continually quality assures its training products and applies a robust quality assurance process to all.

They state: “We don’t teach people to be therapists, but we do teach people to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis – and even potentially stop a crisis from happening.

“We have training options to suit a range of timescales and budgets, from basic mental health awareness sessions to a full Mental Health First Aider qualification.

“They are all designed to benefit employees, line managers, HR professionals, OH workers and senior leaders alike – to let all your people meet the challenges of the workplace head on.”

You can find out more about the work they do via this video:

Thank you again Michael and Laura for sharing valuable insights into such an important topic.

What do you think of what you’ve read? As ever, you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

Mental health is a topic which is incredibly close to my heart. I’ve been investing in my own mental health through counselling for the past couple of years to help me deal with certain situations. My local mental health NHS trust has been a wonderful support.

It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to ask for help. If I can, you can.

Further reading about mental health on my blog

Thank you for stopping by


First published on the All Things IC blog 19 March 2018.

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