Emily is a Senior Policy Advisor on Future Prisons Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

Why did you choose to become a mental health first aider?

I’d been having more and more conversations with friends and loved ones about mental health. The first few of those conversations felt quite daunting and scary, but the more you talk about mental health the more confident and reassuring you can be. It felt quite a natural decision to go and become a MHFA as you never know when you might need those skills.

What does a mental health first aider do? What kind of support can they offer colleagues?

I like the idea that just like physical illnesses you might also need first aid for your mental health. Its funny really that first aid for mental health is a new concept and was only introduced in 2017 when it makes so much sense!

Mental health first aid is akin to its physical counterpart as the first aider is not a qualified professional and they are not trained to diagnose, but rather to provide immediate assistance (think of grabbing that nearby first aid kit). We’ve been trained to spot signs of deteriorating mental health and so may intervene if we notice someone at work is particularly struggling. The conversation with your MHFA is confidential (except in instances where there might be immediate harm or if there is gross misconduct) and mainly we listen to what you have to say and offer reassurance. We’ll then guide you through the ways you can get professional support. The civil service is great and has loads of means of accessing mental health services.

What is your personal relationship to mental health? Why is this a significant topic for you?

I used to think that my mental health was something I could ignore as it seemed to be just fine. However, as I’ve got a bit older, I find the best way to stay on top of my own mental health is to actively notice when I might be going through a dip. I like to think of mental health as a continuum and some weeks or months you might need to apply a bit more effort to get yourself feeling better than others.

Has your LGBT+ identity influenced your experiences or relationship with mental health in any way?

For me, I realized about my LGBT+ identity in my early twenties and as LGBT+ identities are not the norm (although thankfully they are becoming more so) it definitely freaked me out to begin with. I’ve seen lots of my LGBT+ friends really struggling with their identities and that contributed to me wanting to become a MHFA so I could know how to support them better.

What do you do to work through mentally challenging times? What kind of advice can you give others during lockdown, but also more generally?

I’m someone that likes to have lots of plans in the future and this period in lockdown has really made me re-evaluate that. Instead I’ve tried to focus on planning fun things to do like cooking, games, and excursions for the week ahead. I’m trying hard not to think about what will be happening this time next month.

More generally, if I notice my mental health taking a turn for the worse, I try to mention it to my girlfriend, my housemate, or my mum – I think there is something about calling yourself out that helps me to get a bit of perspective on how I’m feeling.

What is something you wish more people knew about mental health?

Something that I took away from my MHFA course is that as a society we are much better at talking about common mental health problems. What we are not so great at is talking about rarer forms of mental health conditions and how to support people with those.

Mental Health First Aiders are trained and accredited by MHFA England. You can find out more about their work here. Training is delivered at departmental level in the Civil Service. If you’re interested in reaching out to, or training to be, a Mental Health First Aider, please contact your local HR.