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Course teaches mental health first aid to industry

Addressing mental health
Lisa Lounsbury, instructor, mental health first aid.

For years now, industry has recognized the importance of workers’ physical health and safety and has addressed it as a priority. But mental health has taken a back seat — until now.

In May, Workplace Safety North (WSN) announced it would start offering a Mental Health First Aid course to organizations in the mining, forestry, and pulp and paper industries.

Developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the course teaches participants the signs to watch for amongst their coworkers who may be experiencing a mental health crisis and how to provide immediate support.

Upon the announcement, Candys Bellanger-Michaud, WSN’s president and CEO, called mental health first aid “an idea whose time has come.”

“Just as physical first aid is administered to an injured person, mental health first aid is provided until appropriate support is found or until the crisis is resolved,” she said in a release.

“Coworkers who see each other each work day are often in the best position to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in their fellow coworkers, provided they’ve been properly trained.”

WSN has hired Lisa Lounsbury, founder and owner of the Sudbury-based company New Day Wellness, to teach the course, which is voluntary and not regulated by any governing body.

Lounsbury has taught about a half-dozen mental health first aid courses since she was certified in June, in Sudbury and North Bay, but believes interest will spread amongst companies throughout the North.

“At this point, it’s basically those (companies) that are interested, those that care, those that want to change the culture and reduce the stigma that are taking the course or inviting their staff to take the course,” Lounsbury said.

Taught over 12 hours, across a span of two days, the course educates participants on some of the conditions affiliated with mental illness, such as anxiety and mood disorders, depression, psychotic episodes, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, and how to recognize the signs of these conditions in people around them.

Participants are also educated on what to do to keep a person safe, and how to refer to them to local resources, such as a crisis centre, to assist them in getting help. Their role is not to diagnose, Lounsbury emphasized, but to provide immediate assistance until they can access help from a professional.

A key aspect is learning to become a better listener, a skill Lounsbury believes everyone can improve upon.

“If you’re not in tune, or not asking the right questions, or not listening properly, you could miss someone,” she said. “And wouldn’t that be horrible if someone is considering suicide and they’re reaching out to you, but you haven’t listened and then the worst thing’s happened.”

Mental health first aid can be a hard sell, because there is still a strong social stigma surrounding mental illness. Many people feel uncomfortable talking about it, some feel ashamed for having experienced a mental health problem, and others simply don’t understand it because they haven’t experienced it personally, Lounsbury said.

But mental illness is not uncommon. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, one in five people will suffer from a mental health problem in a year. One in three people will suffer from a mental health problem in their lifetime. And those are just the stats that are reported by the medical community.

Lounsbury believes the numbers are actually much higher, because there are people who never report or seek out help after experiencing a mental health issue. And those working in industry aren’t immune.

In mining, for example, underground workers lose serotonin and vitamin D, which can allow depression to set in easily. Shift work can wreak havoc on a miner’s body, and the work is often dangerous; colleagues could experience a mental health issue following an injury or, in the worst case, the death of a coworker.

Lounsbury believes courses like mental health first aid are helping to break down the stigma by encouraging participants to talk about mental health and share their experiences. On more than one occasion, she’s had to use her mental health first aid training while teaching the course to support a participant who had an anxiety attack or broke down in tears during the class conversation.

“It could get very intense,” Lounsbury said. “There are sometimes tears, there’s sometimes anger, anxiety, despair — all the things that we’re talking about actually bring those emotions to the participants in a class, and we never know when to expect it.”

She’s happy to report that even the most skeptical participants have changed their tune after completing the course, expressing new empathy for what those with mental illness go through and why it’s important to have the training in the workplace.

Unlike physical first aid or CPR, there’s no recertification required to maintain their mental health first aid skills, but Lounsbury is optimistic that one day, the training will become mandatory at workplaces across Ontario and the country.

“Everyone’s got a story, and we’re not alone,” she said. “If you think you’re the only person suffering, you’re not alone.”