First aid for the mind

Published on: 21 Jan 2020

Image: syaefudin / Adobe Stock

Image: syaefudin/Adobe Stock

The term “first aid” usually conjures one of a few images – learning compressions with Resusci Anne in a classroom, seeing St John Ambulance at events dealing with minor injuries or watching TV shows about the emergency services.

Unless in a medical profession, you very rarely see or have to deal with anything more serious. However, the fact is, many people in the world would benefit from a different, more preventive form of first aid aimed at people’s minds.

Mental health is becoming a more mainstream topic of conversation. Initiatives such as the Mind Matters Initiative, run by the RCVS, are providing much-needed support, resources and training, and are pushing the topic more into the mainstream, but there is still a way to go.

Prejudice in society remains – you can see it everywhere. Slang language is rife with colloquial references to poor mental health. Psychological conditions are treated as something to hide or be ashamed of, rather than treated as part of life, as physical illnesses are. A desperate need exists to de-stigmatise the subject so more people feel comfortable seeking advice, guidance or help without trepidation.

Mental health first aid is about creating an opportunity for people to talk to someone about their life. It does not have to be a trained medical professional – just someone who listens; someone who fosters a safe environment where everyone is comfortable sharing what’s happening both personally and professionally, what’s troubling them or becoming a drain on their mental faculties, or just having an outlet for thoughts and feelings they may not want to share with friends or family.

Mental health issues are chronic and persistent. They eat away at you until it all becomes too much. By the time physical symptoms show themselves, it’s too late – it has already taken over. I cannot stress enough how mental health issues impact on life. It is debilitating. It affects every part of your day, from feeling immense lethargy to not wanting to get out of bed.

You fear interactions with people because of what might or might not happen; all of this while putting on a brave, smiling face as you do not want to let everyone know you’re struggling. You live in fear they’ll treat you differently, or look on you as a failure if they knew. This needs to change.


The Centre for Mental Health found UK businesses lost nearly £35 billion to mental health conditions in 20171. This manifested itself in a number of ways: 60.8% through reduced productivity of people at work, 30.4% through sickness absence and 8.8% through staff churn. The vast majority of this is preventable and businesses could be in a better position if mental health is managed to a greater extent.

The numbers speak for themselves, but what is more important, in my opinion, is each of the numbers have people attached. The fact businesses are losing money is neither here nor there to most people. However, I suspect making these numbers more relatable will bring it to life.

In total, 5% of churn is attributed to mental health. If you work in a practice with 20 people, 1 person each year will leave because of his or her mental health – not because he or she has found a better job, is moving away, needs more money or anything else, but purely because he or she cannot cope. I believe this figure will be a magnitude higher in the veterinary profession, but the data is not available at the moment.

The aforementioned sickness absence figures relate to 72 million days in the year. When you consider the best estimate is one in four people will experience a mental health issue2, that’s 10.7 days per person – 11 days of sickness purely relating to mental health. This is not because they had flu or broken bones, but because they just couldn’t face getting up and going to work.

Also, these figures do not include all of the time not recorded as related to mental health. The stigma creates a world where people are not comfortable telling their colleagues they are going through a tough time mentally. We all have to agree reducing the impact of mental health issues has to be a priority.

Take action

Starting a conversation around mental health can be done by anyone. Leaders can use team meetings, huddles or written communications as a great starting place. An emphasis has to exist on making the topic a recurring point – it needs to enter the general consciousness that it’s something “normal” to talk about. It can be as easy as reminding people the Vetlife Helpline exists and is there to help, or that you are available to talk about any issues they may be facing.

Everyone should be comfortable talking to people at work. I’m sure most people make small talk about what they did at the weekend, a film they saw or a night out they had; it should be no different when talking about mental health.

There is no shame in suffering from a psychological issue, just like there is no need for either side of the conversation to feel embarrassed. Being that person who creates time and a safe environment for the other to share how they’re feeling will make such a difference.

Let the people around you know you are there for them. Reassure them they are not troubling you with their feelings. Most of the time people won’t want to share what they are going through in fear they’ll be a burden. Create a safe place with no judgement – just openness and empathy.

Ask them if there is anything you can do to help. Tell them it’s okay to feel what they are feeling, and that they aren’t weak or a failure for feeling the way they do. It’s a part of life. A lot of people go through mental health issues – they are not alone and it’s important for them to come to terms with this. These simple things will show you care and are there for them.

Don’t get me wrong, I know talking to a colleague or friend is no replacement for professional help – I’d urge anyone with symptoms of illness to seek the advice of their doctor – but having a point of contact closer to hand may increase the likelihood of sharing each others feelings.

One of the best tips I can give you is to be resilient. Sometimes these conversations may not go “to plan”. In giving an outlet, you may find yourself being on the end – or the target – of all the feelings they have pent up inside.

Realising it is not personal, keeping calm, and not letting these words affect the care and compassion you are giving is of paramount importance. You are just the nearest person and become the target. Remember, purging these repressed thoughts and feelings can be an important step in the process of recovery.

Make it official

Officially recognised accreditations to becoming a sanctioned mental health first aider exist. Mental Health First Aid England offers a number of courses suitable for a range of different scenarios, whether it be for workplaces, schools, armed forces, young people or adults.

In addition, Vetlife Helpline provides help for all veterinary professionals – its services are free, confidential and provide a much-needed outlet for anyone needing support for their mental health.

Only one issue exists – it’s self-service, so someone has to realise he or she needs help, pick up the phone and dial the number. Left to his or her own devices, it may be too late by the time he or she telephones the helpline. 

I want to avoid this as much as possible by encouraging more people to open up and talk to someone at an earlier stage, and this is where you can help. It doesn’t have to be a big, meaningful, deep conversation about your life story; just dialogue about how you’re feeling in the moment.

You’ll be surprised at the weight that gets lifted from even a first, short, honest conversation, and you never know – the person you confide in may have been through something similar, felt the same as you and come out the other side. It may offer hope to you; hope that you too can find a way to manage your situation to the benefit of your mental health.

We can all encourage those who need it to take the first step towards getting help – whether it be giving them an outlet to vent, talking to an accredited mental health first aider, telephoning Vetlife Helpline or pointing them to talk to their GP.

Your help may put someone on the road to regaining control over his or her mental health.


1. Centre for Mental Health (2017). Mental health at work: the business costs ten years on, (accessed 7 June 2019).

2. Mind (2013). How common are mental health problems? (accessed 7 June 2019).