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High numbers of university staff find their jobs stressful with anxiety and depression being the most reported mental health issues in Higher Education (Rand Europe 2017). Being able to understand our own mental health and recognise when a colleague is distressed or has a mental illness is important and may help to prevent the difficulties escalating. 

When people feel safe to disclose mental ill health and are met with supportive responses from their organisation, they are more likely to access the services needed for recovery or management of symptoms, and this is where those trained in mental health first aid can often play a pivotal role as a first responder. 

Mental Health First Aid is designed to: 

  • Give people the tools to keep themselves, their colleagues, students and peers healthy
  • Empower them to access support when it’s needed for faster recovery
  • Allow people with a long term mental health issue to thrive in work or study
  • Stop preventable issues arising by building a supportive culture and mental health 

Within the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham, we have 10 trained mental health first aiders, with MHFA forming part of a larger Wellbeing Strategy developed by the Wellbeing Taskforce. Those who complete the training act as a point of contact and reassurance for any staff member who may be experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress. 

Our mental health first aiders do not provide counselling services, nor do they give ongoing support and/or try and replace existing University Occupational Health services. What they do, is to provide that first level of support to someone in distress, will listen without judgment and will signpost people to appropriate support either within the University or externally. They are identifiable throughout the College by their green MHFA lanyards and can be contacted during office hours, the details of which can be found on both the College’s MHFA Intranet page and via strategically placed posters around the various departmental buildings. 

Talking to people who are in distress can itself be distressing, so creating an environment of peer  support for the mental health first aiders themselves, has been essential. As such, the group have their own distribution list, through which they can share thoughts and ideas. They also meet up on a monthly basis. These meetings are led by an academic member of staff, who will also check-in on a 1:1 basis with anyone who has been contacted in their capacity as a mental health first aider, to ensure their own wellbeing. 

These meetings are designed to: 

  • Allow people to share their experiences
  • Provide a platform for the sharing of both knowledge and resources
  • Discuss the processes for undertaking MHFA activities
  • Plan promotional/marketing initiatives
  • Provide opportunities for people to refresh their skills by talking through different mental health related scenarios.

So, if you have a personal concern, or a concern about a colleague or just want to talk something through, please contact one of the CoSS Mental Health First Aiders. 

Maureen Smojkis, College Lead for Mental Health First Aid

Rachel Posaner, Mental Health First Aider at the Health Services Management Centre (HSMC)