The worst accident I ever had at work was when I bent down too quickly and ripped my suit trousers from waistline to gusset. My dignity was severely bruised. That was my lowest work moment. And yet, over the past two years I have become a first aider and a mental health first aider at work.
I started the process post-lockdowns. It seemed timely. We were all still wearing masks, so nobody could attempt the give the dummy the kiss of life, but otherwise I’m pretty confident that I’m prepared for whatever comes. So far, the worst disaster I have been called on to attend was a student who had a very slight nosebleed.
But the thing I remember most vividly from that first aid course is the story of the mannequin affectionately known as Resusci-Anne. Its face, we are told, is based on the death mask of a real young woman who was found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s at the age of about 16. Now the most kissed mouth in the world, nobody knows for sure who she was, but the most repeated of the thousands of backstories imagined for her is that she died by suicide.
This cast my second course run by the Mental Health First Aid charity (MHFA) in a very different light. MHFA’s aim is to have as many mental health first aiders in the country as there are physical first aiders. The courses began in Australia in 2000 and have now been delivered in 24 countries to over 5 million people. The two-day course I attended at work was of a type launched only in September 2022.
One golden rule ran like a thread through that course: listen. Listening is not something we always find easy. More often than not, we do not listen so much as wait to get our words out. But when someone is in crisis, sometimes you simply need to say less and listen more. Create space and give time. Don’t judge. Don’t advise. Empathise. Just let the person know they are safe and heard. They are the centre of their world, as we all are, but their world is not always so secure. Your presence can be scaffolding until the expert has a chance to help them rebuild. So listen to them.
No physical first aider is expected to act as a trauma doctor or surgeon. They only need to fill the gap until an expert arrives. The same is true with mental health first aid. Do not worry about your lack of expertise. You don’t need to be a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist. You’re simply called on to be a person helping a person who is finding being a person hard. Anyone can do that. Anyone can listen.
And yet, in January it was reported that 20 per cent of calls to national NHS suicide crisis helplines went unanswered due to understaffing. This, after a decade of swingeing cuts to CAMHS funding that have left scars on the arms of my students.
Bluntly, I sometimes think we are not the caring nation we like to think we are, at least when it comes to our children. We make them wait for a referral. We make them wait again for an appointment. And we let the phone ring out when they call for desperate help. We are not listening.
Colleges are often doing the best they can to cling on to the slipping grip of teenagers who are starting to sink. But we must do better. And an easy way we can do that is to make sure we are all equipped to help any young person who feels the cloud descending over their lives.
Resusci-Anne didn’t get the help she needed. Her story carries on nonetheless, speaking to us as much about the 21st Century as the 19th. How many Annes and Andrews, Anans and Anjus are in our classrooms today? And what difference might it make to them, their current and future families, and to us as a society if more of us were simply equipped to listen?