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Mental Health First Aiders offer support for colleagues

Durham inspires      
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As you might have seen in May’s Dialogue Magazine, we’ve launched a brand new programme to support staff who might be facing issues with their mental health.

We have 50 new Staff Mental Health First Aid volunteers (MHFAs) who are ready to offer advice and support to colleagues who are experiencing emotional distress or mental health difficulties.

To give you more details about their work, we asked two MHFAs to share their experiences...

Sylvie Donna (pictured above) is an Assistant Professor (Education) and teaches on the MA TESOL & Applied Linguistics at the Durham Centre for Academic Development (DCAD). She volunteered to be an MHFA after her involvement in supporting staff since joining the University in 2005.

Sylvie said:

I’ve provided a lot of formal and informal support to lecturer colleagues over the years. I’ve helped people who are facing a whole range of problems that had the potential to affect their mental health.

“Some were being bullied, some had problems with their work, some had things going on in their personal lives, and I’ve even dealt with people who were very angry and considering self-harm. But by listening, encouraging and helping them identify ways to move forward, there were always good outcomes.

“I think it’s important to take a holistic approach when offering support and to listen really carefully to people’s answers. Listening compassionately and trying to identify each person’s main issue is really important. I’m a bit like a detective, listening to people as they talk, finding out the key problem and helping them to think about possible solutions.

“Through working with all these people and supporting them through their issues, I felt like I was really helping them. So when I heard about the opportunity to train as a Mental Health First Aider at the University, I immediately volunteered. I thought the training would help me ensure the support I offer is rooted in good practice, which I was relieved to find is indeed the case. I also found I learnt a lot during the training because – as ever – it’s difficult to know what we don’t know!”

Intensive training

To become an MHFA, volunteers attend a training course to understand what affects mental health and how to support colleagues, listening non-judgementally and, if necessary, sharing information about the professional support available.

Sylvie continued: “The training was an intensive course on two separate days with a lot of reading and preparation before and between each of the sessions. This was followed by a mini-conference, where most of us worked face-to-face. We were all provided with comprehensive manuals and in-depth detail about the conditions that people might have. It really helped me to understand certain key signs for referral, which I hadn’t been so aware of before."

When asked what she would suggest to anyone struggling at work, Sylvie said: “I think as a first step it’s helpful to think in terms of people and not tasks. In other words, help one person or a group of people sort out an issue because that will immediately reduce stress. Liaising with colleagues and managers is important but it’s also helpful to speak with someone separately. Therefore, I would also encourage people to seek out their mentor – or arrange to get one through the University if they haven’t already done so. After all, it might not be a mental health issue you’re facing but just that you need help thinking through a situation and your options. Finally, of course, there is now also this wonderful mental health first aider team. If people would like to make this their first port of call, that’s fine too – each person is no doubt the best judge of what they need.

“We all need to remember that it’s OK to seek support - we MHFAs are here, and we’re really ready and willing to help. On the training course I was struck by what a wonderful group of people were on the course - all really lovely, approachable people from different areas of the University who are volunteering their time to help. So if you feel you need support, just get in touch.”

Tackling the taboo

Siska Herron is another member of staff who volunteers as an MHFA. Siska works as a Domestic Assistant in Accommodation and Commercial services and has been keen to use her experience to help other people who might be struggling.

Siska said: “I’ve actually used my training to help someone already! It might have been fate but I happened to overhear a young lady talking about a crisis situation she was in and I had a short conversation with her and talked about some of the options open to her.

“I was really pleased I could point her in the right direction and felt like I was on cloud nine as I could use my skills to really help someone, which is the beauty of the training. You sometimes can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel as you’re just focusing on how long the tunnel is! But if I can point out where the light is so people don’t turn off and miss it, we can get through it together.

Siska replied to an advert appealing for volunteer MHFAs in Dialogue last year. She continued: “I thought the Mental Health First Aiders would be right up my street. It’s a subject that’s really close to my heart so getting involved was something that I really wanted to do.

“Mental health was actually an even bigger taboo in Eastern Europe where I came from. I grew up in Slovakia during the Communist era and everything was quite closed: people looked at anxiety and depression as signs of weakness and it wasn’t until I left in my early 20s when I first realised that mental health problems were nothing to be ashamed of.

Coming to the UK I spoke to someone to get help and that was a revelation.

“I’ve worked at the University for three years and when I mentioned the MHFA course to my manager, they really supported my application and I was over the moon to take part.

“The training was very intense and emotional at times, but being online meant I could take time to absorb it all and it was very interesting and helpful.

“Even though it is discussed more these days, I know that mental health can still be a taboo subject and that sometimes people who are affected don’t really like to talk about it openly. But like if you break your leg, you can’t walk it off; you need time to heal and help to treat it, which is just the same as a problem with mental health. You definitely need to look after your mental, as well as your physical health.

“The MHFAs aren’t brain surgeons. You might think of us as first aiders who can be there as your first port of call, reassure you and help you find professional help.

“I want everyone to realise that there are people there to help and we’re easy to speak to. You’re not alone and there’s always ways to solve a problem, no matter what it is.”

To speak to a Staff Mental Health First Aider or find out about their support, please visit the MHFA page.

You can also watch a special video about the MHFAs.



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