Why HR Professionals Need Mental Health First Aid Training

Many human resources practitioners lack sufficient knowledge about mental health conditions. As the first line of defense in addressing issues related to employees’ well-being and productivity, HR professionals should possess the skills necessary to identify and respond early to employees’ mental health disorders. Like me, you’ve probably worked with someone you suspected was in need of help, but you weren’t sure how to approach the situation.

Most businesses today have first aid kits readily available to treat physical conditions at work. Many of us keep first aid kits in our cars, purses, briefcases or desks. We take CPR courses every few years so as to be prepared to help someone suffering from a heart condition. Yet we are woefully unprepared to identify or help someone with a mental health condition — even though mental health problems in the US are more common than heart, lung and cancer diseases combined.

Mental Health Improves Productivity

It’s estimated that one in five (20%) adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. This is the equivalent of 45.6 million people. A large percentage of those individuals are working adults. This leads to over $60 billion in lost productivity each year. Mental health is a business issue as well as a public health issue.

As HR professionals, let’s do the math and estimate the impact to the businesses with which we work. If 20% of the workforce could be experiencing a mental health disorder in any given year, approximately how many employees does that equate to in your workforce? If those employees aren’t seeking help for their conditions, what is the potential impact to the employee, their co-workers, the workforce and the bottom line?

Reducing Stigma Increases Treatment

HR can also improve mental health in the workplace by reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. Much of the stigma of mental illness is due to a lack of knowledge. While we wouldn’t think of referring to someone as “a cancer” or “a broken leg,” we often hear people referred to as “a manic depressive.” As with other cultural changes, HR can act as leaders in shifting the way people think about mental illness.

When stigma is eliminated, people are less afraid to seek treatment for their condition. Despite the current prevalence of mental illness, it’s estimated that only one-third of those afflicted receives treatment.

Mental Health First Aid Training

Over the past year, I’ve attended several educational courses dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues and training people to identify and respond to mental disorders. All the courses I’ve attended are excellent programs designed to accomplish specific outcomes. For example, LivingWorks’  SafeTalk program focuses on suicide prevention. Another program, Emotional CPR (eCPR), trains people to assist others through an emotional crisis. Both programs are designed and facilitated by dedicated mental health professionals.

But I found the 8-hour Mental Health First Aid course to be most applicable to an HR practitioner’s role. Managed by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the course is focused on improving mental health knowledge and skills. It’s designed to teach lay people methods of assisting someone who may be in the early stage of developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. The concept of the course is similar to CPR training. The trainee is not expected to respond as a physician, but rather as an early responder. The course teaches participants:

  • The signs of addictions and mental illness;
  • Impact of mental and substance use disorders;
  • A 5-step action plan to assess a situation and help;
  • Local resources and where to turn for help.

The program is designed for all people and organizations that make up a community — and a workplace certainly meets the definition of a community. People who interact regularly with a lot of people, such as police officers, HR professionals and health care workers, are encouraged to attend the program. I left the class feeling much more confident in my understanding of the importance of good mental health in the workplace.


Sources:  Mental Health First Aid USA; National Alliance on Mental Illness

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Noma Bruton

Bio: Noma Bruton is an HR expert in the banking industry and currently serves as Chief Human Resources Officer of Pacific Mercantile Bank in Costa Mesa, CA. She is passionate about improving mental health in the workplace and the prevention of suicide. Noma is the author of the Sagacity | HR blog. Connect with Noma.


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