The 2016 World Mental Health Day theme ‘Dignity in mental health – psychological and mental health first aid for all’ provides an opportunity for us to focus on an area that continues to provide challenges for people with mental ill health and their families, getting the right help in crisis.
Why is it that in many parts of the world, if somebody collapses due to a physical illness such as a heart attack in the work environment, at school, at a stadium, a concert, on public transport in the street or at home that person is likely to get help from somebody who knows about physical health first aid. If somebody experiences a severe acute anxiety state in these same places for whatever reason psychological or mental health first aid is much less likely to be provided and people even walk away. Yet we know that psychological and mental health first aid works.
Many people who present to a hospital emergency department for a medical crisis such as chest pain are given immediate care and the hospital usually has a protocol that everybody follows. For many people with mental health conditions presenting to a hospital emergency department with a mental health crisis or severe emotional distress, the response is less predictable. There may be no protocols to follow despite evidence that psychological and mental health first aid is safe, effective and training programmes are available to teach people how to provide it. This happens all over the world, whether a country is rich or poor. This is a lack of mental and physical health parity. Why should we continue to tolerate this?
Our world is in turmoil and crisis and many people in psychological and mental distress are not receiving the help they need. However, with training we can all play our part to reach out to people in mental health crisis so that they feel less vulnerable, less fearful and more accepted by society.
It is common to have trained physical health first aiders in many workplaces, institutions and public services across the world, and it is commonplace to call for them in a physical crisis. The same cannot be said of mental health. A few weeks ago I stopped my car because I saw a crowd of people around a young man who had been involved in a motor bike accident in a busy street in London, UK. I was touched by the amount of care and love he received from passers-by whilst waiting of the ambulance to arrive. Even young children who were there with their parents provided their own support by sitting patiently. They did not run away. People knew what to do and people cared. I wondered if the same would be true if the young man was acutely psychotic in the street. I realised that in an ideal world all first aid training should be for physical and mental health - there is no need to continue to separate the mind from the body.
There have been many global declarations promoting human rights but, despite these powerful documents and instruments, many people with mental health problems and their families continue to feel marginalised with poor access to help. You can do something, and this year’s World Mental Health Day celebrated on 10th October aims to give us the tools to improve our basic psychological and mental health first aid skills.
We can all play our part in helping to alleviate mental as well as physical distress in a crisis. This year’s World Mental Health Day educational material, freely available on www.wfmh.org, provides examples that show that psychological and mental health first aid works all over the world in many and varied situations. Information is provided about the basic skills you need to learn to deal with mental health distress or crisis.
Remember that nobody is immune to psychological or mental health distress and crisis. It could be you, your relative, your friend or a colleague. Psychological and mental health first aid is a skill that you may one day directly benefit from and which may prevent the crisis from getting worse, may provide comfort and may even preserve life. So why not support this skill being made available to all.
We are all capable of providing physical, psychological and mental health first aid in an emergency – don’t be a bystander, be a first aider!
Professor Gabriel Ivbijaro MBE, JP
MBBS, FRCGP, FWACPsych, MMedSci, MA, IDFAPA
President WFMH (World Federation for Mental Health)
Chair, The World Dignity Project