Introducing the Mental Health First Aider role to support Pilgrims’ staff and volunteers

The need for mental health support became prevalent during and after the COVID-19 pandemic; in meetings, it consistently came up that staff were feeling exhausted and had low morale. Karena Marks, Clinical Business Manager, was already trained as a Mental Health First Aider (MHFA), and she saw there was a gap it could fill within the charity.

We asked staff for expressions of interest in becoming a MHFA; once a team was in place, they completed a two-day training course to gain the tools needed to support their colleagues and our volunteers. The role is now included within our wellbeing strategy.

Karena explains what the role involves and how it is supporting Pilgrims’ teams:

“All workplaces have a first aider onsite to deal with accidents or injuries. It’s just as important to have someone to help people with their mental or emotional wellbeing, too.

“Mental ill health is the highest cause of sickness absence, and it can affect anyone. Companies are realising that their employees may be struggling to cope, especially in healthcare professions and within the current cost of living crisis.

“High-profile, public figures regularly speak out about their own struggles with mental ill health and social media awareness campaigns are growing.

“There is a dedicated World Mental Health Day on 10th October each year, too.

“We all need to be open about our mental health and willing to create a supportive environment where we can look after each other; this is where the MHFAs come in.

“MHFAs are trained to spot the early signs of mental ill health in others. They are a first point of contact and reassurance for people experiencing emotional distress or suffering with mental health problems including stress, anxiety and depression. This interaction could range from having an initial conversation through to supporting the person to get appropriate help. The MHFA role also acts as an advocate for mental health in the workplace, helping to reduce stigma and cultivate positive change. MHFAs work to create an environment where we are all looking after each other.

“Our MHFAs are not trained counsellors or therapists, but they provide a confidential and safe place to talk and just ‘be’. They take time to listen and give the emotional support needed, without judgement.

“They are also trained to assess the risk of self-harm, physical safety or even a risk to life to you or others around you. If there is a serious concern, this is reviewed confidentially and action will be taken to protect you and/or others. MHFAs know how to contact appropriate emergency services, if required.

“Many people find that just having a supportive, listening ear and a safe space is all that they need, but our MHFAs are available for continued support, if helpful.”

What’s next?

  • The MHFA role at Pilgrims is constantly evolving; the team meet bi-monthly to discuss how we can ensure everyone is aware that ‘we are here if you need us’.
  • We are aiming to ensure that the MHFA role is explained as part of our induction for new staff and volunteers, so that new starters know about the support available to them.
  • We have branded posters and contact cards that will be shared around Pilgrims’ sites, and we’re planning a roadshow – we will visit each site to give out the cards and explain what MHFA is, to further embed the support we offer.
  • We use relevant apps to ensure we have the latest signposting information to hand when needed.

To find out more about Mental Health First Aid, click here.

Each year, Pilgrims Hospices give care and comfort to thousands of people in east Kent coming to terms with an illness that sadly cannot be cured. The charity supports patients to live life as well as possible until the very end, free from pain and distress. Care is provided from three hospice sites in Ashford, Canterbury and Thanet, as well as in patients’ own homes. To offer these services to patients and their families the charity must raise £11 million each year from the generous local community.