Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:11 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Wavertree 1:11 pm, 17th January 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. I am going to move on to talk about tackling the stigma and discrimination that we know still exist in our country. We have made some progress in the national conversation about tackling mental ill health, particularly with the younger generations, but in too many workplaces and too many communities, there is still the discrimination and taboo connected with mental ill health. As a constituency MP, I see that almost weekly. Men of an older generation feel that they are able to talk to me because I campaign on this issue and am very open about it, but they are perhaps unable to speak to their work colleagues—sometimes not even to their close family—because of the discrimination that they feel still exists. We are certainly on a journey as a country.

One objection to this proposal might be that mental health requires highly specialist medical intervention, not someone in the workplace with only a few days’ training—and of course that is absolutely true. Mental health conditions do require specialist diagnosis and treatment. That is why many of us, on both sides of the House, have been calling for more investment in this area to ensure that we have the clinicians within our NHS to address the mental health crisis in this country. But let us be very clear that this motion, with this specific initiative, is not seeking to substitute mental professionals with mental health first aiders. Mental health first aid training gives people the knowledge, the skills and the confidence to intervene early if someone is struggling with their mental health. It is not in any way intended to be a replacement for trained mental health professionals, either in the NHS or in our workplaces; rather it offers an early warning system and an opportunity for employee support. It is also, in response to the point made by my hon. Friend Dr Drew, aimed at tackling the taboo that we often see. Raising awareness of mental ill health and placing it on an equal footing with physical ill health tackles some of the stigma and discrimination that we still have to break down.

If any colleagues would like a clearer explanation, let me say this. All of us here present would know where to go for assistance if we had a physical injury. If we had perhaps slipped, or had a burn or a cut, we could go to the officers just down there through the Chamber. Perhaps, either in this place or in a previous role, we were that first aider. But how many colleagues, or their staff would know where to go if they were struggling with their mental health? How many would have known who that person was, or if they existed at all, in their previous job? Training people in our workplaces in mental health first aid would mean that employees in workplaces right across our country had an instant answer to that question.

No one should assume that a mental health first aider is the same as a mental health professional, any more than anyone assumes that a current workplace first aider is the same as a heart surgeon, an A&E doctor or a cancer specialist. The point is that a mental health first aider provides early intervention and a critical and important signpost. They would be able to answer questions about how and where to go to get treatment. They can help to change the culture in an office or on a shop floor so that someone with a mental illness has support. They can provoke a conversation about mental health that can break down some of the stigma and prejudice. They can be a valuable first point of contact for someone struggling with their mental health in what might otherwise feel like a very lonely environment.

We do not need to talk in purely hypothetical terms. At the end of last year, the Where’s Your Head At? campaign sent a letter to the Prime Minister in support of statutory mental health first aiders. It was supported by over 40 businesses, including WHSmith, Standard Chartered and Thames Water. I am particularly proud to say that a friend of mine and good Labour colleague, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has, in the capital, done so much on mental health first aid training at City Hall and in London’s schools as part of his public health strategy. St John’s Ambulance will have trained 10,000 people by the end of this last period. Mental Health First Aid England has now trained over 350,000 people in mental health first aid. Councils are investing in this and other providers are making similar strides forward. Those who have completed the training say it is hugely beneficial to them and their co-workers. It gives people the skills, knowledge, confidence and language to spot the signs of mental ill health, provide support and make early interventions. But most critically, it is helping the people affected. It really can make a difference.

One of the elements of the mental health first aid training that I completed was about what to do if someone you work with is experiencing suicidal ideation and might be considering taking their own life. Some 6,000 people in our country have taken their own life in the past year and this particularly impacts on young men. This is an area where quite often people do not know what to say or do, but training such as this, and training from the Zero Suicide Alliance, which offers a free online half-an-hour session, are the tools that can really make a difference. In some cases, it really is a life or death situation.

A number of unions have come out in support of the change to the law we are seeking to make today. Community, The Teacher’s Union and Unite were all signatories to the letter to the Prime Minister I just mentioned, and the Communications Workers Unions and the GMB have since joined calls for this change to the law.

The costs of training—another question that is often raised—are very clearly outweighed by the benefits of better mental health in our workplaces. Training can typically take place over a number of days, but it can also take place over one day—or half a day, providing opportunities particularly for small businesses and organisations to train people in mental health first aid, too. The training that I did was with the Liverpool city region Mayor, Steve Rotheram, and the senior leadership of Merseytravel in Liverpool. I have half a day left to do, but I have done almost the whole course and seen what the benefits can be. So we do not need to gaze into a crystal ball. We can talk to people who have been trained. But again, in particular, we can reflect and engage with the people who have been helped.

I would like to share some of the thoughts of organisations that have gotten in touch in recent days to share their experience of training mental health first aiders, the value they place on this important initiative and why they are supporting our call today. The insurance company AXA has trained over 100 of its staff to become mental health first aiders, so now each of its UK offices has one. It has also trained as mental health first aiders the staff of the companies that it provides insurance to, helping other businesses across the country to improve mental health in their organisations.

Another success story is that of Thames Water, where 350 employees across the organisation are trained in mental health first aid. They wear green lanyards so that they can be easily identified by the wider workforce. A further 250 employees have joined the company’s mental health online engagement forum. Thames Water has calculated that there has been a 75% reduction in work-related stress, anxiety and depression among its employees—a not insignificant impact.

Colleagues may not know—I was certainly not aware of this—that the construction industry is the sector where workers are most affected by mental ill health. In response to that, the Construction Industry Training Board has now committed £500,000 to the Building Mental Health initiative, which will train 156 construction workers as mental health first aiders. Further to this, Mates in Mind is a fantastic charity that works to address the stigma around poor mental health and improve positive mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry. It aims to have reached 75% of the construction industry by 2025.

I give these examples as evidence to colleagues that a number of businesses across the country have been proactive in their approach to mental health and are reaping the rewards. There are many more I could have shared, but I am conscious that many Members want to contribute to the debate.

This is an idea whose time has come. In a decade from now, when mental health first aiders are an established part of the workplace, we will wonder why we did not start sooner. It is good to have the Minister here today. As I am sure she recognises, this is a measure that can bring us together across party lines. The Minister and the Government have the chance to do a really important thing in supporting this motion. I should say that that is in line with their own pledges in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017. The Government have the opportunity to amend the 1974 Act and to take a clear step towards achieving real equality.

The term, “parity of esteem”, may seem meaningless, but it means real equality between physical and mental health. We legislated for that principle in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. We are now seven years down the road and still waiting to realise that ambition. The Minister will also know that the Prime Minister has been clear on this from the start of her premiership, when she made the commitment to address the inequality between physical and mental health one of the key “burning injustices” that she wanted to erase. This motion, and the policy that it seeks to implement, gives the Prime Minister and her Government the opportunity to solidify her commitment to this mission.

Unlike certain other matters that we are discussing in the House this week and over the weeks ahead, this initiative has cross-party support. It has the support of businesses and of our constituents—over 200,000 people have signed the petition. It has the support of so many mental health campaigners across the country. I sincerely hope that all Members on both sides of the House will support it here this afternoon.