Lessons from 5 years of running Mental Health First Aid Training for the industry

Bare Feat's founder Chloe Hooper reflects on the key themes she has found from speaking to the industry about mental health.

This article discusses mental health issues. If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636. In an emergency, call 000.

Five years ago I reached out to Mumbrella saying I wanted to train people in Mental Health First Aid. This was driven by a trip back to the UK to care for my mum who had just experienced a mental breakdown. It was incredibly difficult to discuss my mums’ illness when I got back to the office. It also made me realise how hard it must be for people who were suffering. Since then, I have trained over 2000 people in the industry to become Mental Health First Aiders, built my own mental health training and even shared my story as part of many workplace MH initiatives. It’s been quite a journey.  

Sadly, five years later I found myself at the airport on my way back from another trip caring for mum. Although we have had some good years, this time she was worse than ever. It was emotionally draining for me to watch. I can only imagine how awful it must be for her.  

Through my exhaustion, I had a little voice inside my head saying ‘you turned this into something positive last time, do the same again’. For now, I want to share some key themes from speaking to so many people in the industry about mental health.   

People don’t know what to say 

Mental health still has many grey areas when it comes to legality, ethics and language. I feel like the lack of clarity disempowers people and makes them feel that they just don’t know what to say when someone opens up. I’ve discovered it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you don’t say. Listening non judgementally and being open is what a successful mental health conversation looks like.  

You don’t need to have all the answers, in fact, asking genuinely caring questions and then listening for a response has the most impact.  

I often talk about initiating the ‘awkward pause’. A pause so long that the person holding it feels uncomfortable. However, the person in need of support who has been asked the question is given the opportunity to gain clarity of thought and articulate a response. The pause won’t feel long for them, it creates space for them to be heard.  

I’d encourage everyone, but particularly our senior leaders to follow Stephen Covey’s quote to “listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply”.  


Mental illness does not discriminate 

Throughout this journey, I’ve had some of the most senior people in the industry reach out and say they are struggling. You don’t need a reason to be suffering from mental illness, it does not need to be triggered by something catastrophic. It can impact any of us at any point. We talk a lot about stigma but I would argue that so many people have become conscious of their mental health now that there is no one left to pass judgement.  

I would encourage everyone to speak up, as you would be surprised how many people can relate and understand.       

Suicide – It’s real 

Our industry has lost a lot of people to suicide. For those left behind, it creates a state of despair. We need to get more comfortable talking about suicide. In mental health first aid we teach that asking someone directly if they may be suicidal is one of the best sources of prevention.  

It’s going to take time, but we need to become comfortable talking about suicide if we are going to prevent it.    

We are still enablers of substance use disorder 

Alcohol is part of the DNA of our industry. I cannot tell you how many times during mental health training I’ve heard ‘I feel pressured to drink’ or ‘I feel like I need an excuse not to drink’. I wrote an article about this for TedX a couple of years ago which outlined the need for change in this space. But as our post-pandemic freedom accelerates, we all seem to fall back into our old hyper-socialised lives. I am hearing a lot of people who are overwhelmed by the number of occasions when they are expected to drink. A colleague recently proclaimed that they are ‘scared of Q4’ and we are only in March. Providing non-alcoholic options at parties is a cop-out.  

If you are working to enhance your employee experience, consider re-evaluating how you provide entertainment to your people.   

Every meeting should be approached with empathy  

Every team member has a life outside of work. However, we typically keep these lives separate.  During my recent visit back to London, I took midnight calls after a long day of providing care. This was a choice, but it highlights the challenges faced in the new world of flexible and remote working arrangements.  

I think it would be fair to assume that in every meeting you go to, someone has something going on personally that may be impacting how they are feeling that day. Now I don’t think the intention is to turn every meeting into ‘R U OK?’ because we’d never get shit done. But we can be more empathetic in our recognition that people do have a life outside of work. 

If we add this lens to all conversations, then we should ultimately create a more mentally healthy workplace and probably take ourselves a little less seriously.  

Things need to change 

My mum is in her sixties but has experienced mental health issues for her entire life. Sadly, these issues have largely gone untreated. My biggest learning from visiting mum this time is that things need to change drastically. We need to prioritise our mental health as much as our physical health.  

I now see a therapist whom I have worked with to develop a resilience toolkit which I active when things get tough. But is this really enough? Realistically, as with most of my generation and certainly those before me, I spent 30 years without any mental health support. Poor mental health can be just as disabling as poor physical health. We need to reframe how we see looking after our mental health.  

It is time to unlearn behaviours, practice self-leadership and make mental health care. A proactive approach to looking after your mental health should be something for everyone.  

Chloe Hooper is the founder of Bare Feat.


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