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The importance of Mental Health First Aid in museums

The provision of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is growing as a trend across many industry sectors around world. Yet capitalising on its popularity isn’t a fad.

Mental health first aid is a tool to nurture healthier minds, foster more supportive workplaces and ultimately strengthen communities. As the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to unfold and evolve, this matters now more than ever.

With MuseumNext’s Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit just around the corner, now is as good a time as any to explore the importance of mental health first aid. How can this form of training help employees and institutions? And what does it really mean to be a mental health first aider?

What exactly is Mental Health First Aid?

The provision of mental health first aid has grown dramatically since it was first conceived in Australia in the year 2000. Like traditional first aid, mental health first aid identifies when someone requires help and responds quickly to those in urgent need of support. But instead of administering treatment for a physical ailment, mental health first aiders (MHFAs) are tasked with spotting the signs of mental health problems and providing carefully formulated and individualised support.

Whilst illnesses and distress may not be physical, the impact of poor mental can be just as devastating and debilitating as its physical counterpart. In England, 1 in 4 experience mental health problems, with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) particularly widespread. Globally, mental health issues are considered to be among the main causes of overall disease burden. More specifically, depression is the second leading cause of disability worldwide.

Through mental health first aid, institutions can assist people who need support and comfort, understand mental health problems, promote good mental health and recovery, and prevent conditions from worsening to successfully safeguard the vulnerable.

Mental Health First Aid – the essential tool museums need in place?

With people returning to the workplace after an extended, Covid-enforced hiatus, the importance of proactively supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff is clear for all to see.

The social isolation, remote working practices, and missing face-to-face interactions people have experienced one way or another throughout the pandemic has impacted their personal and professional lives more than some would like to admit. This has served to put mental health first aid firmly on the agenda for many museums and galleries.

Working in museums and cultural organisations can be a fast-paced, challenging and stressful environment. Whether it is meeting deadlines, juggling budgets or dealing with customer service issues, there is often too much to do and too little time. Under these tricky but not unusual circumstances it is critical that there are trained team members tasked with identifying those whose mental health may be suffering or simply providing a sounding board for those who feel overwhelmed and in need of support.

It’s important to clarify that a mental health first aider is not a clinical therapist and is not responsible for the treatment of mental illness – just as a paramedic is not a doctor or surgeon. Instead, the role is of value because it aims to support positive mental health and help to prevent the deterioration of wellbeing in the workplace. Through quality mental health first aid, staff can be supported so they feel more valued, listened to, involved, committed, healthier, happier and resilient.

The institution benefits, too. The museum can enjoy improved staff retention and lower recruitment costs, less absenteeism and greater productivity.

A mental health first aider is trained to spot the signs of mental distress or illness and has the knowledge and resources to guide the affected individual towards the help they need to overcome or manage their problem. Through an open dialogue, understanding and support, an MHFA can assist people experiencing mental illness or distress, even when the effects and impact of their issue aren’t always obvious.

Why should dedicated MHFAs be introduced to institutions?

While training a museum’s entire team to be able to identify and accommodate mental health issues may be the ideal situation, it is certainly beneficial to have a dedicated mental health first aider in place – a team member who is equipped to provide ongoing assistance and passionate about protecting the wellbeing of colleagues.

With the presence and help of a dedicated MHFA, museums can do more to help people experiencing poor mental health and enhance staff wellbeing on a broader scale.

Find out more about health and wellbeing in museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit running 6 – 7 February 2023.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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