Mental health first aid and the law

A blog on behalf of Legal Futures Associate CILEx Regulation by Professor Mark Watson-Gandy, Barrister and Chairman of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England

Parliament: Strong support for amending regulations

Since the 1981 Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations were introduced, providing physical First Aid support has been a requirement for all workplaces.

Since then, physical First Aid has become ingrained in our culture. But with recent research suggesting that nearly half of us will experience a mental health issue in our current job, it’s easy to see why the public, employers and mental health campaigners are now calling for mental health first aid to be given equal legislative status in the workplace.

For those who may not be so familiar, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is the mental health equivalent of physical first aid. The concept originated in Australia at the turn of the century, and has spread across the globe, with a presence in 25 countries – and counting.

In this country, MHFA England is the leading licensed provider of MHFA training. Its courses give people the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and effectively guide a person towards the right support, be that self-help, an Employee Assistance Programme or NHS services.

It’s important to note that those trained in MHFA aren’t counsellors or therapists. Rather they act as a first point of contact and offer initial support through non-judgemental listening and guidance.

Since it was established in 2009, MHFA England has been working to embed MHFA skills in a wide variety of communities including schools, universities, the armed forces, and businesses of all shapes and sizes – including law firms.

As a high-pressure profession, more and more firms are waking up to a need to improve mental health support in the workplace, with many already using MHFA England training as one part of their strategies.

Long hours, tight deadlines, and a ‘stiff upper-lip’ culture have all been associated with increased stresses and strains in the legal world. Indeed, the Junior Lawyers Division recently reported that 82% of young lawyers say they regularly or occasionally feel stressed, with 26% saying they feel extremely stressed.

Whilst stress in and of itself isn’t a mental health condition, it can be a contributing factor. And it’s here, for example, that a Mental Health First Aider would be able to spot the signs and symptoms that might indicate someone is struggling with their mental health, and offer a listening ear and a guiding hand to further places of support.

So far, the campaign to ensure every workplace makes provision for mental health first aid – ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ – has been backed by over 200,000 members of the public, as well as 50 leading employers, who  wrote to the Prime Minister last November to express their support.

And this month the campaign went to the House of Commons, with MPs from across the five largest parties supporting a preliminary motion to bring our outdated health and safety legislation up to speed. A hugely encouraging step as the campaign begins its journey in Parliament.

In the wider policy context, bringing mental health first aid into every workplace has huge potential to help employers take forward the recommendations of the Government’s ‘ Thriving at Work’ report. This urged employers to subscribe to six core standards for a mentally health workplace which emphasise, among other things, a need to develop mental health awareness among employees and encourage open conversation about mental health and the support available.

It’s clear that setting a baseline for mental health support would make a huge difference to so many people’s lives. And with strong support across Parliament and society at large, the campaign will now progress over  2019 as employers, MPs and mental health campaigners continue their work to make this legislative ambition a reality.



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