The first aid instructor clicks the powerpoint once again and reminds us sternly that if someone suffers from a severe abdominal injury, it’s crucial not to touch or replace any visible intestines. I jot it down diligently but I can’t help wondering how often this advice will come in handy in my life. Considering I’m flirting with unconsciousness from merely hearing about it, I seriously hope it’s not often.
I realise that’s the point of First Aid – you never think you’ll need it until you’re face to face with a life or death situation. And we’d all be a lot better off if every Aussie could recite the ins and outs of DRSABCD.
But when a tearful friend drunkenly walks into my room a few weeks later and divulges that they’ve been battling serious mental health problems, refraining from touching their intestines doesn’t seem like it’s going to help much.
The truth is, we are hopelessly unprepared to help people struggling with mental illness. This is despite the fact that one in five Aussies are locked in a draining battle with mental illness at any given time. Yet despite the insistence to be repeatedly trained in physical first aid at school, at our workplaces and as a prerequisite for many professions, mental health first aid training remains a novel concept.
Perhaps it’s because mental illness operates behind the scenes in people’s minds, unable to be diagnosed from afar or signed with marker pens after you go get treatment. Instead, a friend letting you glimpse their inner turmoil is a deeply personal, emotional and confronting experience. For the person struggling, if they do reach out at all – it is a moment of intense vulnerability, because things have reached a point where they feel they cannot continue the battle alone in their own heads anymore.
That’s why this first interaction is so critical. A receptive friend can reassure them and help guide the person to seek further help and healing . But a dismissive or thoughtless friend can compound those anxieties and deter the person from ever seeking help. For the confidante of the person struggling, it is an emotional experience too, as they take on some of the responsibility as someone who is privy to their friends’ struggle.
In most cases, natural instincts normally kick in, and good friends usually already have a grasp on how to be open and sympathetic to that person. But what if you suspect they are suffering from something serious? What if you receive a call from someone in the throes of a depressive episode, contemplating suicide? That brief interaction you have could save their life.
While I hope few people would be callous enough to tell someone to “get over it” or “you seem fine”, even well meaning comments can be deeply insensitive – like constantly providing your own advice or telling them that you understand what they’re going through, when in fact you have never dealt with anything of the sort. It’s even more difficult when questions arise such as “should I tell their parents?”, “should I persuade them to seek professional help?” or even “is it too risky to leave them by themselves”?
With so much pressure around this interaction, we need to teach people how to respond when they find themselves in this role of spontaneous counsellor. It is deeply unfair to expect a young teenager or adult to know how to counsel someone in the clutch of mental illness, especially if they have never experienced it themselves and the feelings can seem bizarre or irrational.
This is even more important for demographics where more people are at risk. Young people, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and LGBT people are particularly susceptible, with same-sex attracted people experiencing up to 14 times higher rate of suicide attempts. Likewise, those living away from home often confront these issues more often, as friends become the first port of call in tough times. But it’s not just friends who can be called on in these tough times – colleagues, teachers and bosses should be versed in the best ways to respond as well.
I by no means wish to devalue the importance of physical first aid, which itself needs more attention and promotion. But considering suicide took more young people’s lives than car crashes last year, mental health first aid should be equally – if not more – of a priority. Training people to talk to their friends in a compassionate and sensible way could go a long way to treating this silent epidemic and get people help when they need it. It would teach people what to say (and what not to say) and educate people when parents or carers should be informed. These courses already exist. Now it’s just a matter of raising their awareness and reinforcing their importance.
If nothing else, introducing mental health first aid into our schools and workplaces would drag mental health into the spotlight, and help everyone reach out to one another – even if they’re not struggling.
If you want to know how to talk to someone struggling with mental illness, check out the mental health first aid guidelines.
There is also specific guidelines for different mental illnesses including depression, eating disorders, self-harming and panic attacks.
If you’re struggling with yourmental health, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or visit beyondblue.com.au.