Making a difference – MHFA at Leeds Mencap

dsc_2573_22389755988_oIt dawned on me with some surprise that I’ve been an MHFA trainer for over two years now – I’ve run around 18 courses I think, in Leeds, London, Burnley. I’ve had three different co-trainers, and also run some sessions alone.  Varying sized groups, each one different and with its own unique discussions and lessons to learn. But all have been in the same context – within my “day-job” employer.

Mental health is one of the leading causes of sickness absence, and of disability related unemployment. A lack of understanding of mental health issues in employers can make life very difficult for those of us who are trying to stay in work while managing our conditions. So I do not underplay the value of delivering MHFA in the workplace. Absolutely not – I doubt I would have held on to my job at certain points in the past few years had my employer not accepted their duty to make reasonable adjustments, and my managers worked with me to find out what helped me to keep delivering as they expected.

However, it can’t be denied that it is somewhat of a “safe” environment. A) a lot of our staff have perhaps a higher level of awareness of health issues, as that is the area we work in, and B) – if you go for a course in your own workplace, you are still very much in a work mindset, there is probably a consciousness than anything you might say might get back to your manager – or indeed you might be sharing the room with others who you might work with. There will inevitably be some element of holding back.

So – it was with some nervousness, as well as excitement that I arrived at Mencap Leeds to deliver my first freelance MHFA course “in the wild” – or out in the community. I knew that it would be different, and I was keen to find out how.

My co-trainer Sam had done the hard work of organising and advertising, so all I had to do was turn up, set up and bring my training mojo.

We had a full room, 16 trainees, from a variety of organisations. An interesting mix – from a law firm, construction company, local council, recruitment, charities and individual participants. A good group from the local Nigerian community so some ethnic diversity, though sadly only one man in the group (it really would be nice to get more men along.)

There was some practical / logistical learning for Sam and I – the group was a bit more prone to discussions amongst themselves, and the use of workbooks meant they could see ahead of time some of the exercises which benefited from the element of surprise – so we will need to learn to be a bit more “teacherly” and keep things more under control in future.

We had some excellent discussions – it is always a challenge to fit all the content in and still have the chance to share some  of the thoughts and experiences we each bring to the session, but it is I think where a lot of the real learning and changing goes on. We had people with personal experience, and who developed new understanding about people in their lives.

One aspect that particularly stood out for people was the number of men who die through suicide. Some of you may have seen recent campaigns aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues in men – getting people to realise there is nothing unmanly or wrong about talking about your emotions, admitting you are having a hard time, asking for help. It is a huge problem – and one which is even more pronounced in cultures, or sections of society which have more exagerrated or strongly deliniated gender roles.

Of 6,233 suicides in the UK in 2013, 4,858 or nearly 78% were men. And if anything we know this is under-reporting. For a variety of reasons some suicides will end up being coded as misadventure, accident or other reasons. Suicide in general is a major public health issue – it kills many more people than die on our roads. Most people who take their own lives have not been in touch with mental health services in the year previously, which suggests there is a major opportunity to help prevent these deaths – if we can help people to feel able to admit they are struggling, and talk about things with friends – then hopefully we can help them to seek help, and find the hope they need to hold on.

We also discussed the challenges faced in trying to increase understanding in some cultures where mental health is viewed in a very different way. It is difficult to manage our own frustration, disagreement, even anger, when faced with someone who, for instance, might see mental health problems as a sign of possession by demons, or even evil – but simply shouting over or dismissing another person’s belief is unlikely to help anyone. Even in our own country and society there is plenty of stigma and misunderstanding, and many people who would rather turn their back on people with severe mental health problems, or view people as lazy or weak, than take the time to understand psychosis or appreciate the impact of depression and anxiety. It’s not long since the standard approach to someone who experienced extreme distress, or detatchment from reality was to lock them away and forget about them. We can hardly be surprised that there are places in the world where this still stands (or is perhaps the best someone can expect). Our job is to keep trying to educate, and help people to understand mental health as a normal spectrum of experience – how this can develop and also that it can be helped.

At some point in the afternoon I realised – or more accurately, remembered, the importance of the work we do. That it is bigger than ensuring your manager understands to help you manage your stress levels and gives you the adjustments you need (though these are important in their own way) – but actually at root, the reason I teach MHFA, and strive to raise awareness and understanding of Mental Health – is that this is a life or death issue.

I have been on the brink of death. Though it is many years since I did anything about it, I have wanted to die. And I am sure I would have taken that step had I not learned some of the things which keep me hopeful, which help me remember that the clouds will pass.  But I did get help, I continue to find ways of coping with life and the muddle of emotions that sweep me this way and that. I can even control them more than I ever thought possible. Helping more people to understand that this is not something someone pretends for fun, or attention, but a very real and painful illness – is so very important.

And as we help to keep people alive, we must also help them live, build lives, families, relationships, have jobs, dreams and desires. Because we all deserve to be happy and fulfilled, and I am confident that with the right support and understanding, we can.

If you’d like to come along and learn how you can help make a difference, we’re running another session in February – you can book on Eventbrite, here:


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