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A trainer's perspective on mental heath awareness

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Is there anyone who hasn’t been affected in some way by mental health?

Probably not! Research suggests 1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental health issue in any year. Therefore, if we don’t personally experience mental health difficulties, it is likely that we know a family member, friend or work colleague who has. Members of my family have experienced depression and my girlfriend experienced mental health difficulties following the birth of our daughter. Although I haven’t personally experienced mental health problems I believe that anyone can given the right combination of factors.

There has been an increase in campaigns over the past 10 years aimed at raising awareness about mental health, the most well know of which is probably ‘Time to Change’. Paralleling this trend there has also been an acknowledgement of the need to educate the wider public about mental health issues. Consequently, some of the key courses Community Links Training team deliver are focused on mental health awareness. Mental Health First Aid teaches people how to identify, understand and help a person who may be experiencing mental health difficulties. Similarly, suicide prevention training such as ASIST and SafeTALK aims to raise awareness and skills within the community. Research has demonstrated that these courses have all decreased stigmatising attitudes and increased confidence in responding to mental health issues.

I’m passionate about mental health and am proud to be involved in delivering Community Links training. Myself and the training team are currently involved in delivering a range of these courses to organisations such as West Yorkshire Police, Leeds University, Kirklees Council, York City Council, Rotherham Council, Leeds City College and the Prison Service. It’s great to see acknowledgment from such a diverse range of organisations about the importance of training their staff to be better equipped to effectively support mental health.

One of the things that I’ve learnt over the past 10 years working in the mental health sector is to practice the advice that I give to service users and people who attend my training courses. In particular the importance of taking time to look after our own well-being. It’s common for professionals to give advice promoting mental wellbeing but how often do we practice what we preach? I believe that unless we are prepared to put our own advice into practice we are in danger of lacking genuineness and acknowledging our own humanity. To help maintain my wellbeing I try to build a range of activities into my life such as practicing yoga regularly, eating healthily, playing in a band and spending time with family and friends. I recently experienced the bereavement of my father and realised just how important all these things were in helping manage this difficult experience.

Although the increased awareness of mental health in society is a positive step there are some potentially negative unintended consequences that need to be considered. The terms ‘anxious’ and ‘depressed’ are now commonly used in society, however there is a danger that their flippant use trivialise the emotional difficulties that people experience. There is also a danger of the medicalisation of normal human experience due to the symptom based approach to mental health diagnosis. Diagnoses primarily focus on the presentation of symptoms rather than considering why people may feel certain emotions. Isn’t it normal for people to experience a period of sadness or low mood following a relationship breakdown or losing a job? A symptom based approach can only provide a partial picture and we need to consider the wider experience of the individual, differentiating between normal human experience and on-going mental health difficulties.

Despite the increased awareness of mental health in society, stigma and discrimination still persists. We only have to look at the media portrayal of celebrities such as Frank Bruno to see we still have a long way to go. This shouldn’t be a surprise; the Race Relations Act was first introduced in 1965 and yet discrimination still persists as the case of Stephen Lawrence highlights. Similarly, the Equal Pay Act was introduced in 1970, however today women working full time are still paid less than men in 90% of sectors (UK Commission for Employment and Skills 2016). Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that whilst values and attitudes in society are definitely improving however there is still a long way to go.

Mental Health Awareness Week will be taking place between 16-22 May 2016, the theme of which will be relationships #MHAW2016. Why not get involved?