One of the most important aims of the MHFA course is dispelling the myths and stigma associated with mental illness and what we teach is designed with this in mind. Many of the members of the MHFA team have a history of mental illness ourselves, and others are carers.
Something we say right from the beginning of our course is that the course does not qualify anyone to make a diagnosis. Diagnosing is not part of the curriculum. We talk a little about how mental illnesses are diagnosed, but the focus is well and truly on recognising that someone is not traveling well and assisting them to get the help that is needed. MHFA participants learn to recognise clusters of symptoms and refer a person to appropriate help. This, we feel, is very important. Many symptoms of mental illness are misunderstood by the community and result in people being further isolated. For example, irritability, social withdrawal and difficulty with day to day social interactions can result in being ostracised. In adolescents, many symptoms of mental health problems can be met with a disciplinary response rather than a caring one, particularly at school.
We spend a lot more time talking about being non-judgmental, listening, providing support (both emotional and practical) and encouraging the person to call on the support of the people around them while doing things that help them to feel better. Also, participants learn how to respond in a crisis. This is essential because it is usually friends, family or co-workers who will be in a better position to help in times of crisis. For example, with some skills and training, a close friend or family member can recognise signs that a person is feeling suicidal, and assist them.
Research has shown us that attending the course improves people’s attitudes, helps them to more readily recognise that someone is in need of help and provide appropriate help. The success of the program is reflected in the national and international recognition and spread.
We appreciate that some people have had unpleasant or distressing experiences in the mental health system. We teach that professional help should be sought and that evidence-based treatments are effective for most people. We also encourage participants to advocate for the people they are assisting, in hopes that this will make the process easier.