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Why this law teacher undertook mental health first aid training

I am a law teacher in the Faculty of Law at Bond University. In early May this year I completed a mental health first aid (MHFA) training course, and I am very glad I did. I have always been an advocate for mental health, having struggled with my own mental health issues for the last three decades.  I make no secret of the fact that I struggle with mental health daily, and I encourage those around me, especially my students, to reach out to me if they are struggling with their own mental health.

What does MHFA training involve?

The course I attended was run over two days, with six hours of face to face learning each day. There were 5 attendees in the group, including me. When you think of a six-hour intensive day of learning, you might imagine time dragging on and attention waning. But that was not the case at all: the time flew. Nevertheless, at the end of each day, I was utterly exhausted, mainly due to the emotion-charged content I was learning.

Mental health first aid is like physical first aid training. With physical first aid training we learn about DRSABCD: Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing, CPR, Defibrillator. With mental health first aid, it is about ALGEE:

Approach the person

Listen and communicate non-judgmentally

Give support and information

Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help

Encourage other supports

The MHFA training course started with a discussion about mental health in general, how common mental illnesses are in Australia, and how there is hope for recovery from mental illness. Over the two days I learnt about depression (including suicidal thoughts), anxiety, psychosis, non-suicidal self-injury, eating disorders, traumatic events, and substance abuse. I learnt that sometimes you just cannot tell whether it is time to call 000 or if it is best to try to get the person to talk things through …  and that we should err on the side of caution and call 000 if in doubt. I also learnt that some mental health illness signs and symptoms mimic those of physical illness. For example, a panic attack often mimics the symptoms of a heart attack: both come with palpitations, accelerated heart rate, sweating chills or flushes, trembling or shaking, numbness or tingling, shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pain. That is why, if in doubt, we should call the ambulance.

Another thing I learnt was how to identify if someone is in crisis and how to respond appropriately in that situation. For example, if I think that someone is contemplating suicide, I now know that it is better to ask them outright whether that is what they are thinking. Before completing this course, I would have been reluctant to ask such a question in case it put the thought into that person’s mind. I now know that I need to be open and direct in such a situation to get to the truth and to help the person seek the right type of professional help. It is these seemingly little snippets of information that resonated the most with me.

As well as learning what to do, the training also taught me what not to do if I find myself in certain situations. It even touched on small things that I might not otherwise think of in the moment such as making sure not to approach someone on my own if I think that they are suffering from psychosis (delusions etc) and making sure that I always have a safe exit from a situation that has the potential to become volatile.

Overall, the MHFA course provided me with a wealth of information. I am still going over the course materials to learn more and to make sure that I do not forget any aspect of my training.

Why did I decide to do a MHFA training course when I struggle so much with my own mental health?

Students have always felt comfortable reaching out to me to talk about what they are going through, including homesickness, unwanted pregnancies, severe anxiety, panic attacks, and even suicidal thoughts.  I have the broad shoulders and sympathetic ear, but before doing the course I did not have the skills to know how best to deal with many of these situations. I have always acted on instinct and tried to support the person the best way that I knew how. Sometimes that meant just sitting and listening or giving them a hug (if that is what they wanted). Other times it meant telephoning a close friend or relative to come and provide further support. I have even phoned counsellors and doctors and made appointments for students who were unable to take that first step on their own and needed some help and support to reach out.

Completing the MHFA training has allowed me to see that my instinct has, for the most part, been spot on.  But the training has also provided me with more certainty and clarity as to how to deal with those who come to me, whether they are in crisis or not. The training has made me aware of a range of resources that I did not previously know existed and which will likely be very useful in the future.

What do I hope to do with my MHFA accreditation?

I think that my openness, honesty, and capacity to share my personal struggles “humanises” mental health. Students know that I am a safe person for them, that it is ok for them to come and talk to me openly and without reservation. They know that I will not judge them. My only aim is to support and to nurture and to see that those who need help get it.

My primary reason for doing the MHFA training was to make sure that I was able to properly help the people who reach out to me. I tend to share a bit about my life and my mental health struggles with my students. Maybe I share too much – I do not know – but it is who I am, and I am not about to change. In my first lecture every semester I share my (now 11-year-old) daughter Kirby’s story with my cohort. I tell them how she was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) when she was about 7 years old. Some people may recognise her disorder under its previously known name; Asperger’s Syndrome. She also has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and severe Anxiety, the combination of which results in her self-harming on a regular basis. I open up and let my students know that I am very much aware of what it is like to struggle with mental health myself and how that, having a child who has these mental health issues, has given me greater perspective and understanding of what others may be going through themselves. I let them know that they can come to me for support. I do not share my personal story and make myself vulnerable like this to garner sympathy or to gain attention. I do it to create a bond with my students so that they feel safe with me.

And it works. It really does.  For example, after my first lecture this semester several students immediately reached out to me to let me know that they have mental health issues. One student is high functioning ASD and, in his words, he knows he has “found his safe space at Bond”. Another has been recently diagnosed with ADHD and is going through the ups and downs of finding the right balance of medication. She told me that she immediately felt a bond between us. This connection is why I do what I do and why I did the MHFA training. It is to support, to connect and to help.

My approach is not for everyone. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is not for most. But it is my way. And I am not going to change it for anyone. 

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