More than a bandage: breaking down barriers with Mental Health First Aid

In day-to-day conversation we’re often asked, “How are you?” Most times we respond without thinking—we’re doing well and things are great. But when was the last time you really thought about your answer?

Talking about your health may be difficult, and when it comes to our mental health, the experience can be highly charged. This was true for Kim, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She knows only too well how her answer can vary, especially in her workplace, a fast-paced healthcare facility.

“Sometimes it’s hard to have that conversation, as for me emotions can be a trigger,” says Kim. “It could trigger me for the rest of the day, or longer.”

“I was terrified how it might impact my job or how people might see me; there is still a stigma around mental illness.”

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Kim struggled for two years with her symptoms affecting her job, which raised issues related to job performance. These struggles were noticed by her co-worker, who desperately wanted to help but had no idea where to begin. 

“I was scared for Kim, not just in the moment when she was having a panic attack or struggling with her medications. There were a couple of times when she didn’t come to work the day following an incident where I was concerned for her safety,” says her co-worker. “It got to the point I wondered whether I should go to her house to check on her.”

The situation progressed until it became untenable. For many people this would be the end of the relationship, but Kim persevered and made her health a priority.

Under the supervision of her care providers, Kim took a year away from work and completed an outpatient Hope and Wellness program at Alberta Hospital. It was during that time she heard about creating a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). This is a plan to help you choose who assists and supports you in your recovery as you work on a plan for wellness.

“When you’re ill, sometimes you don’t know,” says Kim. “The plan made sure I was eating, taking my meds and getting enough sleep. This creates a tool I can share with friends and family, so they can look at it if I’m having a bad day and check in with me that I have done all of those things.”

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During the course, Kim saw how her WRAP plan could help her in her work setting, as it had in her personal life. She shared her thoughts and experiences with Laurel Kircher, Wellness Adviser with Occupational Health and Safety at Covenant Health and instructor with Mental Health First Aid. 

“I have been in crisis at work and I know that I'm not the only one that this could happen to,” says Kim.

Returning to work, Kim was encouraged to see that Mental Health First Aid courses were being offered for all staff and enrolled to take the course. “For someone struggling with mental illness, seeing this was being offered—I finally felt like we were getting somewhere.”

After seeing Kim's WRAP plan with her triggers identified, her supervisor can help root Kim back in the moment with a prearranged, non-verbal cue: a reminder to take a moment and breathe.

“I'd hide if I had a panic attack. When you're sick, that's when you need your supports the most. You hide and you're worse off. Now I don't have to hide.”

Scott Aylwin, Senior Director, Addiction and Mental Health, sees the value this tool can add. For people returning to work, it underscores that they have people on their side.

“This can mean the difference between being successful in your job and not,” says Scott. “There are people who struggle on a daily basis, and the prevalence of that in the workplace is incredibly high. This is a tool that can help normalize the conversation.”

For Kim, the experience has been transformational. “I'm glad that I shared it. It's something that has helped me stay here. Even if they didn't know how to use it, I know I have a tool that's going to support me.”

More information on the Elephant in the Room campaign available here

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