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First aid for mental health

Just as you do first aid for physical wounds, you can do first aid for mental health issues too

If you have a cut on your finger, what do you do? You wash the finger with water, put an antiseptic lotion on the cut, and close it with band-aid to avoid spreading of infection. This is first aid for the body. Similarly, there is first aid available for the mind too, called mental health first aid.

first aid is a process to detect possible mental illness in a person. It involves identifying signs of emotional and behavioral issues and communicating with the person to seek professional help, if needed. For any illness, physical or mental, the earlier the intervention, the higher chances of a person recovering from their illness.

Who needs mental health first aid?

first aid is for someone experiencing emotional distress and needing help. There are several situations that can bring in emotional highs and lows, such as a child moving into a new school, a person going through a break-up in their relationship, a worker migrating into a new city, the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, suffering a financial loss, to name a few. The sudden, unexpected change can cause stress, fear and anxiety in the person, and may manifest into a mental illness, if not detected early. Therefore, it is important that the person receives help to safeguard them and not cause further harm.

first aid does not involve diagnosis of any mental illness, or providing crisis management for the person, or counseling and therapy.

How to identify a person who needs mental health first aid?

As a layperson with no knowledge on the subject, you may not be able to recognize that your loved one needs help by looking at them. But, persons who are undergoing severe mental and emotional distress exhibit certain thoughts, behaviors and emotions which may help you identify their distress. They are:

  • Tearing up easily
  • Being worried and anxious
  • Being aggressive and irritated
  • Social withdrawal
  • Refusal to go to school/college/workplace
  • Thoughts of self-blame
  • Feeling guilty
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of helplessness

Sometimes, the person may require the help of a mental health professional, but often they are looking for an empathetic conversation and support from another person.

How can you administer mental health first aid?

When you see someone you know going through emotional turmoil, you can approach them and have an empathetic, non-judgmental, confidential conversation.

For example, take a look at this conversation between a manager and subordinate:

Manager: Hi Anand, you've seemed very dull and tired for sometime now. Is something wrong?

Anand: My father is not keeping well. His health condition has worsened. I'm unable to spend time with him because of work.

Manager: Did you take him to the doctor?

Anand: Yes, the doctor said that his medication has stopped working and he should be left to live peacefully without them.

Manager: Oh. And how are you feeling about that?

Anand: I'm exhausted, thinking about him and I feel terrible that I'm unable to spend time with him.

Manager: You should take the day off today and be with him. Spend some time with him. It's best not to drive home in this situation, take a cab.

Anand: Thank you, sir. I'll leave right away.

In this situation, the manager gave mental health first aid to his co-worker, who was feeling helpless and sad about his father's health. He was empathetic, and listened to Anand without interrupting, to let him pour out his feelings. He helped Anand ease himself and spend time with his father.

If you find that someone you know needs help, here's what you can do:

  • Do not blame them for their thoughts (for example, suicidal feelings).
  • Try to validate their feelings.
  • Do not try to give solutions, help the person look for solutions.
  • Find out if they have any support system.
  • Don't push people to discuss their issues with you. Respect boundaries.

If you believe that the person is having thoughts of suicide, or is experiencing debilitating emotional or behavioral issues such as addiction, refer them to a mental health professional.

This content has been created with inputs from Dr KS Meena, assistant professor, department of mental health education.