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‘Mental health first aiders will be able to spot service gaps’

Jake Morrison, chief executive of Citizens Advice Wokingham

MORE mental health first aiders are popping up across the borough, thanks to a training initiative launched by Citizens Advice Wokingham.

Led by chief executive, Jake Morrison, the two-day course teaches people about supporting others with their mental health.

And by the end of June, there will be 189 mental health first aiders trained by Mr Morrison.

Far from diagnosing mental health conditions, the course helps people recognise the signs and symptoms of poor mental health, Mr Morrison said.

“It’s about being treated with empathy,” he said. “From our team at Citizens Advice, callers say they’re just grateful to be listened to, and not rushed off the phone.

“We hear of people struggling everyday. This is about being there, and responding sensitively.”

Volunteer assessor at Citizens Advice Wokingham, Jane Nelson, said the “excellent” training has given her more insight into the underlying causes of vulnerability.

She said: “It has made me take a more measured approach when talking to clients over the phone, listening more carefully.”

She recently used the training to support a vulnerable person “living on the streets”, and said recognising their anxiety made it easier to deal with the situation “holistically”.

She added: “We are extremely lucky to have access to this training because it will place our larger community in a stronger, united position to support mental health and take away the stigma which to date has kept this issue out of the spotlight.”

Mr Morrision said he hopes trained first aiders will be able to recognise the gaps in services across the borough, as time goes on.

This, he said, will address any barriers the community faces when accessing mental health support. It could also help improve services in the future.

Francesca Chapaneri, people and organisation development manager at the borough council, is leading the initiative in the council. 

She said so far, almost 50 council staff have been trained as part of the programme.

“[It] has really raised the profile of talking about mental ill health, and demonstrated the council’s commitment to employee wellbeing,” she said. “We now have a diverse team of people, that span all directorates, that feel much more knowledgeable and confident to respond to anyone that reaches out to them to discuss how they are feeling.”

This is also helping to change the internal workplace culture, she said. 

“I have suffered from mental health issues myself and experienced first hand how hard it is to talk about poor mental health – there is a real fear people will judge you, and treat you less favourably because of it,” Ms Chapaneri added. “I wanted to contribute to raising the profile of mental ill health and be able to offer tangible support to anyone in distress.”

Since December, the council has supported more than 24 people thanks to the mental health first aid training.

And it has also launched a virtual Wellbeing Café.

“It is a really warm and welcoming place to meet the MHFAs and talk about topics relating to positive mental health,” Ms Chapaneri said. 

Open to companies, charities and other organisations across the borough, Ms Chapaneri said the course is “intensive”, “enjoyable” and “provoking”.

She said Mr Morrision’s personal experience of mental illness and “his dedication” to destigmatising the subject makes it a valuable learning experience.

She added: “All colleagues that took part in the training found it hugely beneficial, learning not only from Jake, but also each other as people brought a huge amount of their personal and professional experience to the training.”

She said the council will soon be focussing on developing the skills of managers, to support their own team’s mental health. 

“We know that good physical and psychological wellbeing is imperative for people to thrive,” she said. “So equipping our line managers with the right knowledge and skills will make a huge difference in ensuring we are doing all we can as a council to support workplace wellbeing.”

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