The increasing awareness about mental health at work is hugely positive, says BACP Workplace Division chair Nicola Neath following a debate in Parliament about mental health first aid.
But Nicola says mental health first aid should only be used as part of a wider approach to mental health at work, which includes access to therapeutic practice and organisation-level interventions to increase organisational awareness and competence.
She said: “It is very positive that there is so much awareness about mental health at work and that the Government and employers want to do more to help and support staff.
“However, mental health first aid can only be part of a much bigger, systemic solution. It should not be confused with employers providing staff with timely access to professional psychological support services for a range of health problems.
“Counselling services providing short-term emotional and psychological support at work are available across the UK, either in-house or via an employee assistance programme (EAP).
“These services are run by qualified accredited counsellors engaging trained professionals who understand the culture of the organisation in the NHS, the public and private sectors, and in universities, and some of these have already been in operation for more than 20 years.”
BACP is concerned about a number of risks associated with mental health first aid, including that it passes responsibility for mental health at work to people who are not sufficiently trained nor adequately supported professionally or organisationally.
Mental health first aid can conceal systemic problems that may be exacerbating mental health issues in a workplace, whereas in-house counselling services or EAPs work with the individual and the organisation to address problems.
Staff or those at risk/who are vulnerable are potentially being signposted to get support from unqualified colleagues – with no boundaries, no contract and no supervision.
All mental health awareness raising is positive, but employers need to be able to refer their employees for professional psychological support undertaken by those who are trained, qualified and professionally supported to do the work and who can be accountable.
Nicola added: “Mental health first aid or any organisational offering should never be expected to replace mental health support, interventions and treatment that should be provided through the NHS.”
Luciana Berger MP, BACP vice-president, led the debate in Parliament on Thursday, which aimed to put mental health first aid on a par with physical health first aid.
Luciana said: “Mental health conditions do require specialist diagnosis and treatment. That is why many of us have been calling for more investment in this area to ensure that we have the clinicians within our NHS to address the mental health crisis in this country.
“But let us be very clear that this motion, with this specific initiative, is not seeking to substitute mental professionals with mental health first aiders.
“Mental health first aid training gives people the knowledge, the skills and the confidence to intervene early if someone is struggling with their mental health. It is not in any way intended to be a replacement for trained mental health professionals, either in the NHS or in our workplaces; rather it offers an early warning system and an opportunity for employee support.
“It is also aimed at tackling the taboo that we often see. Raising awareness of mental ill health and placing it on an equal footing with physical ill health tackles some of the stigma and discrimination that we still have to break down.”
Jackie Doyle-Price MP, Minister for Mental Health, told the debate: “We recognise that mental health first aid has a role to play in the Government's ambitious strategy to transform workplace mental health.
“Mental health first aid is a helpful training resource to educate people to care not only for others, but for themselves. It also helps to improve understanding about mental health and mental illness; to build that culture and better understanding within organisations; and to encourage people to stay well and get the support they need to manage any mental health symptoms and problems.
“On its own, it is not enough. We would not want to have legislation that became a floor of service in mental health.
She added: “The Government's view is that the best way to secure employer action, to enable those experiencing mental ill-health to remain and thrive in work, is to engage with employers to adopt a comprehensive approach based on the Thriving at Work mental health standards.
“Mental health first aid is not an exclusive way of delivering employer action, but it can form part of it.”