Weaving Mental Health First Aid Into Workplace Wellness

Every month Anne LaFleur sends employees in her office a quiz about various wellness topics. When the topic was depression, she received twice as many responses as usual from co-workers.

When LaFleur, vice president of human resources at a credit union in Pawtucket, RI, took a Mental Health First Aid course in February, she quickly understood the reason for the high level of interest in these types of issues. The training also helped her identify people in her office who may be suffering a mental health problem and taught her how to provide help and refer people to self-help and professional resources.

“The training made me realize that mental health issues are very common, yet one of the least talked about problems,” LaFleur says.

More than one in four people suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem in any given year. Mental illness likely costs businesses more than $79 billion a year, $63 billion of it in lost productivity. The statistics point to the significant need to incorporate mental health into burgeoning employee wellness programs, which have received a shot in the arm with the passage of federal healthcare reform legislation.

Mental Health First Aid has proved to be an ideal program to promote improved mental health in workplaces across the country.

LaFleur is one of more than 6,000 people certified in Mental Health First Aid since the training was introduced in the United States two years ago by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare along with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Those who participate in the 12-hour Mental Health First Aid course learn a five-step process to assess a situation, select and implement appropriate interventions and help a person developing signs and symptoms of mental illness or in crisis receive appropriate care. Participants also learn about the risk factors and warning signs of specific illnesses such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, and addiction.

Evaluations show that the evidence-based Mental Health First Aid program saves lives, expands people’s knowledge of mental illnesses and their treatments, and reduces the stigma associated with mental illness by helping people understand and accept mental illness as a medical condition. One trial of 301 randomized participants found that those who took the training had greater confidence in providing help to others, greater likelihood of advising people to seek professional help, and decreased stigmatizing attitudes.

Unexpectedly, the study also found that Mental Health First Aid improved the mental well-being of the participants themselves.

“By understanding the signs and symptoms of depression, I learned to recognize this in myself,” says Kellie-Ann Heenan, director of human resources at a company in Lincoln, RI.

Heenan, who had the training in February, has an adopted son from Russia who suffers from a number of emotional issues.

“The tools I learned made it easier to connect with him and better understand where he’s coming from,” she says. “In the end, the training improved my own mental health.”