The role of a mental health first aider part 2

At Direct Line Group, mental health is at the heart of our wellbeing strategy. In June 2018, we introduced mental health first aiders (MHFA), who provide a first point of contact for employees experiencing mental health issues, to talk things through and be directed to additional help and guidance. We now have 135 MHFAs throughout the business.

In this series, we speak to some of the MHFA volunteers, to learn more about the role and why they decided to get involved.

Here, Alan Bint Senior Manager, Conduct Regulatory Risk at Direct Line Group, tells us his story.

Why did you decide to become a MHFA?

When I learnt that Direct Line Group was introducing the MHFA role, I was immediately keen to get involved. It’s an issue I have a personal connection to; my brother has long struggled with his mental health and at the beginning, I didn’t really understand it.

On the outside things seemed fine for him, and it was only through taking the time to learn about what he was going through that I gradually started to understand more about it. Then, in 2013, my Dad died in a car accident. I learnt first-hand how hard it can be to recover from something like that. I had incredible support from friends and at work, and whilst it’s been really tough, I was able to grieve normally and get through the worst of it. Other people around me found it much harder to cope with - my mum, my brother and my Dad’s best friend all really struggled.

The opportunity to become a MHFA felt like it would give me a way to support other people in my workplace, but also to learn valuable, transferable skills that would help me in my own life. I had also previously volunteered for two years for Victim Support, which provides help for people who have been victims of crime, so had a good foundation of knowledge of how to support someone in distress. 


What training did you receive and what did you take from it?

The MHFA training was run by Mental Health England; it was two full days of classroom-based learning with a group of other volunteers, and we all formed a really strong bond during this time. Inevitably, the nature of what you are discussing can be pretty challenging; most people who get involved in mental health work have had some personal experience with their own mental health or that of a loved one. This can help you to understand and empathise but it can also mean that some of the issues you are faced with can trigger memories or emotional responses that can be overwhelming. 

I think it’s really important that people have space to process this before starting the role, and the training was great for this. When you are supporting someone else, you need to be able to compartmentalise your own material. It’s not helpful to start talking about your personal experience when someone comes to you, you need to be completely focused on theirs. Empathy and listening are the really critical skills.

What has your experience of being a MHFA been like?

Initially, we were fairly quiet so my first priority was promoting the fact that we were available and explaining how we might be able to help. It can be quite challenging for people who have never spoken about their mental health before so I made sure I offered a range of ways for people to get in touch with me and that it could all be done discreetly and confidentially. Now that people are more aware of the MHFA role and how it can help, things have got a lot busier.

A big part of the role is highlighting all of the resources that are available and helping people find the right solution. However, it’s important not to give advice. People should be free to make their own decisions about what the right course of action is - whether it is visiting their GP, or asking for support from their line manager. It’s much more beneficial for people to feel they are taking control of their own situation than for me just to dictate to them what I think is right.


What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a MHFA?

When applying to be a MHFA, we had to submit a pitch outlining why we wanted to do it, and I think this is a really important process. I would suggest to anyone considering it to be really clear on this – you need to be sure you are doing it for the right reasons. It is also worth considering how you cope with difficult situations personally and whether you can deal with things that can be quite traumatic. I knew from my own personal experience that I can handle quite a lot of trauma but it’s still hard. A lot of the people you’ll be supporting are people you will already know and care about, and this can be challenging emotionally. We get a lot of support ourselves though. All MHFAs are invited to quarterly calls and an annual conference where we can share things that we have learnt and help each other out, and we meet in smaller groups informally throughout the year. Everyone understands how important the role is, and we get the support we need from the Group’s directors and our line managers to enable us to give it the time it requires to do it well.

To find out more about our Mental Health and Wellbeing policies click here