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Mental Health First Aid Training - The impact it has had on my practice by Adam Moffatt (Shadow Artist on Quench Arts’ Wavelength Project)

Mental Health First Aid Training- The impact it has had on my practice 

As part of Quench Arts’ Wavelength project, I undertook the 2 day Mental Health First Aid Training course in March of this year that was offered to me as a shadow artist as part of the CPD element of the programme. The course was highly interactive and practical and delivered by Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust. We looked in detail at conditions such as bipolar disorder, the various forms of anxiety and schizophrenia. Through a series of case studies and activities we examined our own preconceptions of mental health and learnt to challenge these to become more well informed practitioners.

I will never forget the impact of one of these activities, where myself and another learner tried to answer a simple series of questions about our weekend, whilst the course tutor whispered some bizarre and sometimes quite dark pronouncements through a rolled up cone of paper into the ear of first one, then the other of us. When it came to our turn, we had our eyes scrunched up or were staring blankly at our partner, unable to maintain this simple conversation. These intrusive voices are of course a common symptom of schizophrenia and it simulated how totally debilitating an effect they could have on trying to do the simplest thing in your day to day life. This was accompanied by a detailed discussion on the nature of schizophrenia, along with related statistics and plenty of time for searching questions from the learners, all of which were answered honestly and fully by the tutor. I could go on with many other examples, but suffice it to say this was representative of the quality and eye opening nature of the whole of the course.

No sooner had I finished the course than I was able to put my new skills into practice. During a music workshop I was working with a young person who suffered from schizophrenia and had been showing signs of being quite distressed during the session. I remembered the voices exercise mentioned above and I could empathise with how distressing this must be. The young person said he hoped I couldn't hear the voices in his head because they were saying very dark things. Before the course I might well have asked him to tell me what the voices were saying, thinking that it would be helpful to talk to him about it. I wouldn't have understood how catastrophic it could be for the person to dwell on these thoughts.

With my new knowledge from MHFA, I knew not to challenge these thoughts or to play down their impact. Instead I told him that it must be very worrying and scary but reassured him that he was in a safe place and that I couldn't hear the voices in his head. I told him I had really enjoyed working with him and if he needed to have a break then this would be fine. We did have a short break and I continued to talk in a relaxed way to him. He managed to rejoin the session and commented at the end that it was a wonderful way to join together with other people.

I now feel I am working on a much more advanced level of knowledge, in that I may know a mental health condition is there but I know it's not possible, or even desirable for us as practitioners, to examine it, explain it or solve it. Instead, the best thing we can do is to use certain tried and tested techniques to help the person feel better at that time. These include being encouraging, kind, sensitive, knowing when to give space and when to make a positive distraction. All of these responses may be modified slightly by our knowledge of the particular mental health condition. This may seem like a very simple and some might say obvious point, but the number of especially young people that are suffering with depression and anxiety today shows that many people lack this insight. I would like to see many more organisations offer training like the MHFA to rectify this. I wanted to say that the MHFA has a wider importance as well.

The MHFA has improved my practice across all areas. It has helped me have more effective conversations with the young people at my music workshops. I am able to see if a young person is suffering from anxiety and alter my manner accordingly with small things like body language and the way I frame my questions. I know I am using approved methods and techniques and so I am much more confident as a practitioner. There are many different things that can happen at a music/mental health session, depending on how the young people feel on that day and how their condition is affecting them. After this training I now feel more equipped to deal sensitively with whatever may occur.