2020 has seen the entire world experience a series of unprecedented events, from loss of livelihoods and freedom to illness and death. It’s far from normal or anything we have seen in our lifetime. These impacts have taken a significant toll on the lives of many across the globe and as a result, the number of people dealing with mental health issues has surged. Resources such as Mental Health First Aid has never been more needed and prevalent than it is now.

Information gathered from Lifeline state that the number of people sourcing help from mental health support services has hit record highs with many under a significant amount of stress during the coronavirus pandemic. The Black Dog Institute said, “During an immediate pandemic, many people will experience high levels of anxiety and worry, however, for most, anxiety will decline over time as the virus is contained. There will be a significant minority who will be affected by long-term anxiety as a result. Health care workers, people placed in quarantine, and individuals with life-threatening cases of COVID-19 are at increased risk of long-term mental health problems.”

COVID-19 has affected people worldwide and here in Australia, Victoria has coped the brunt of it. With soaring coronavirus infection numbers and stage a 4 lockdown, the state is dealing with an overwhelming number of mental health cases.

Women make up the highest proportion of mental health sufferers

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Women are amongst the highest number of callers making up 80 per cent of all people requiring mental health assistance. Professor Kulkarni, a world-leading mental health researcher and director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre (MAPrc) said the clinic is treating an increasing number of women who have never experienced mental health issues before the Coronavirus pandemic. The impacts of homeschooling, isolation from family and friends and financial stress all were contributing factors. Women take on the primary role of bearing, caring, and rearing their children in most cases and that coupled with loss of unemployment heightens mental health issues. There has been a significant rise in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic and this exacerbates the problem further.

The Age report that Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said women comprised about two-thirds of callers to the group’s coronavirus mental wellbeing support service. “We know women are experiencing significant challenges to their mental health as a result of this pandemic,” she stated. “This is concerning, and it demands our attention. The challenge is to create a system that supports every Australian to act as early as possible to support their mental health.” Ms Harman emphasised that women are more likely to come forward seeking help than men.

28% increase in the number of callers made to The Kids Helpline during the pandemic

Additionally, the youth of Australia are grappling with the uncertainty and changes that have come from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Kids Helpline has seen a 28% increase in the number of callers from March to July this year.

A report by the state’s Commission of Children and Young People has stated that other services have become less accessible. Many services for mental health are now online due to the pandemic and this has put a barrier between vulnerable teens needing support. Liana Buchanan, the Commissioner for Children and Young People said, “In the midst of this clear distress, most children and young people told us they prefer face-to-face support services.” Services such as mental health first aid are pivotal to the mental wellbeing of our nation.

What is Mental Health First Aid?

Whilst most of us have heard of mental health, many aren’t familiar with the term mental health first aid. So, what is it exactly? Mental Health First Aid educates people on how to effectively recognise and understand what steps should be taken when someone is showing signs of mental illness. It teaches participants of the specific mental health disorders and how to intervene, provide help, and coordinate with medical professionals, treatment options and support services. People who have completed an accredited mental health first aid course, are equipped with the skills to be able to offer best practice mental health first aid until the person has sought proper medical attention or until the mental health issue has subsided.

Mental health first aid is a potentially lifesaving tool that can be used to help people suffering with:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Substance abuse
  3. Eating disorders
  4. Psychosis
  5. Gambling addiction
  6. Depression
  7. Panic attacks
  8. Self-harm
  9. Suicidal thoughts

Mental health issues are a common health problem and the number of people suffering has escalated dramatically this year. Early intervention and proper mental health first aid care can lessen the symptoms and promote more positive outcomes.

Why mental health first aid is critically important during COVID-19

Due to COVID-19 outbreak, more people than ever are suffering from mental disorders. It has instilled fear and anxiety throughout the population, representing a widespread psychological emergency. The coronavirus pandemic has not only triggered symptoms in those with pre-existing mental health concerns but ignited thousands of new cases who have previously never experienced a psychological condition before. Many have been living with heightened stress levels, extra responsibility and worry every day for months on end now. The importance of mental health first aid has never been as pertinent as it is today. It plays a vital role in getting people back on track and feeling themselves again.

The benefits of completing a Mental Health First Aid course

Mental health first aid has been designed to help those who may be going through a tough time and are dealing with mental health problems. The first aid giver can provide support whilst the person is waiting to see a professional. Anyone can complete this course and it can be highly beneficial in helping people manage their psychological well being. Here are some of the benefits:

  1. Helping the person seek help before the problem intensifies
  2. Recognise the early warning signs
  3. Educating sufferers of the risk factors associated with mental health issues
  4. Advising the person of effective coping strategies and cognitive restructuring
  5. Documenting and monitoring the person’s condition during their treatment
  6. Speaking about it, breaking the stigma, and advocating for mental illness
  7. Identifying the early warning signs of mental health problems
  8. Working in conjunction with a health professional to get the best outcome for the person.

Most people have a friend or family member that has gone through a mental health problem or crisis. Learning how to provide mental health first aid enables us to adequately help when the time arises and potentially reduce the severity of the symptoms. When someone is struggling, knowing they have someone turn to when times get tough can potentially save a life.

Recognising the signs

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To be able to help someone in a time of need you need to know what to look for. Some indications that someone is experiencing mental health symptoms:

  1. Drastic mood changes
  2. Trouble concentrating
  3. Hallucinations
  4. Difficulty sleeping
  5. Easily agitated
  6. Disorganised and erratic behaviour
  7. Withdrawing from social activities
  8. Poor hygiene
  9. Self-harm or suicidal thoughts
  10. Atypical or bizarre thoughts
  11. Lack of activity
  12. Poor efforts at work or school
  13. bizarre or unusual thinking
  14. Rapid weight loss or gain, appetite changes
  15. Lashing out
  16. Confusion
  17. Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or shame

If someone you care about is experiencing one or more of these symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a mental illness, however, if they are showing several of these signs and it has lasted longer than 2 weeks, they may need to speak to a professional for some help.

What do you learn in mental health first aid training?

Mental health first aid training teaches participants how to properly deal with potential mental health issues and mental health crises. Even without accredited training, you can assist someone who needs help by:

Speaking with the person

  1. Provide the person with ample opportunity to speak to you, if they don’t open up or are hesitant to talk and you are worried about their mental wellbeing, start the conversation. Gently explain to them that you are concerned about them. If they don’t want to speak to you about it, encourage them to talk to another person that they trust.
  2. Whilst it may be apparent to you that someone is showing signs of a potential mental health problem, it may not be to them. Don’t dismiss their interpretation of the situation, even if you don’t agree with it.
  3. Ensure you speak to the person privately in a space that they feel comfortable.
  4. Rather than approaching the conversation with ‘you’ comments, such as “you haven’t been yourself lately” try using ‘I’ statements instead, for example, “I have noticed you have been struggling lately.”

Listen and support

  1. Be respectful and patient
  2. Listen to what the person has to say
  3. Instil hope and positivity
  4. Offer information on easily accessible resources and support that can help with their recovery
  5. Encourage them to speak to you or someone they feel comfortable with
  6. Be calm and consistent in your approach

What to avoid

When reaching out to someone who is you suspect is going through mental health struggles, there are some things to avoid to prevent exacerbating the problem further:

  1. Don’t downplay or dismiss their feelings
  2. Avoid telling the person to “toughen up” or “to get over it”. This can reinforce feelings of guilt and inadequacy
  3. Avoid sarcasm and patronising them
  4. Don’t nag or get angry
  5. Don’t overstep and try to take control of their illness

Encourage the person to see a mental health professional

Talk with the person and ask if they would like to speak with a professional about their situation. A general practitioner (GP) can advise them of their options and can put support services in place to help them manage their symptoms. If the person is resisting help, try to navigate why this is. Some may feel embarrassed and this prevents them from seeking help. If this is the case, let them know they are not alone and reassure them that they are doing the right thing. If they still don’t want to see someone, do not pressure them, let them know they can contact you if they have a change of heart.

Mental health first aid for someone who is suicidal

If someone you know is suicidal, it can be a scary and overwhelming situation. You must take immediate action. Here are some tips shared by The Black Dog Institute:

1| Ask

  1. Ask them directly if they are contemplating taking their own life.
  2. Don’t be scared to ask them this question, it shows that you care.
  3. Asking someone if they are suicidal decreases the risk, you are acknowledging it and willing to talk about it.
  4. Most people who are having suicidal thoughts don’t necessarily want to die, they are showing signs of extreme emotional distress and need someone to step in and help. When appropriate support and healthcare inventions are put in place, those who survive go on to live a fulfilling life.

2| Listen and stay

  1. Take their words seriously.
  2. Don’t leave them by themselves.
  3. Ensure there is nothing that can be used for self-harm such as weapons, knives, car, drugs, or medication.
  4. Listen to what they have to say and encourage them to speak with you.

3| Get help

If the person’s life is in danger:

  1. Call 000.
  2. OR: Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.
  3. OR: Take them directly to the nearest hospital Emergency Department.
  4. To a GP or psychologist if they can be seen immediately.

If the person is having suicidal thoughts but the danger is not immediate, they need a support network around them to work through their illness.

4| Follow up

  1. Ensure that you make contact with the person regularly to see how they are going.
  2. Make sure that they are seeing someone to manage their mental health.
  3. Reiterating that you care and are there if they need it.
  4. Remember, you don’t have to do it all on your own. Seek assistance from medical professionals, family, friends etc.

In serious situations acting quickly and knowing how to deal with a mental health situation properly can be the difference between life and death. The entire world is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and a concerning number people are dealing with mental health issues as a result. Whilst the Australian government has injected millions of dollars into the mental health sector, there are still shortcomings with people being able to access these support services. Many people want to speak to someone in person rather than online or over the phone. There has never been a better time for people to learn how to use mental health first aid to be able to help those who need it the most.