First aid for mental health

By Hannah Gibson

Look around you; can you spot anyone with a mental health issue?

One in three Canadians will experience a mental health illness during their lifetime, and yet the signs aren’t always obvious.

Mental health first aid is all about teaching people to recognize and respond to signs of mental illness in others, to help those suffering in plain sight. 

Spotting the Signs  

You may have heard of conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia before, although how they present varies from individual to individual.

Any change in someone’s normal behaviour or mood could be a sign of deteriorating mental health.

Here are some early signs something may be wrong: 

  • They lack interest in hobbies or things they used to enjoy doing 
  • They seem tired or have poor concentration 
  • They feel angry, anxious, sad or hopeless, for little reason
  • They seem to be having strange thoughts or hearing voices 
  • Their appetite, sleep or exercise regime has changed 
  • They’ve stopped looking after themselves, such as forgetting to wash or tidy their home 
  • They’ve been missing school or work more, or avoiding social situations 

How to Approach Someone Experiencing Issues 

If you think someone you know may be experiencing mental health issues, broaching the subject with them may feel daunting.

It’s important to remember you are doing it because you care, and that even if they react badly or reject the idea, raising the topic with them can be the first step towards them getting help.

Here are some tips to make initiating the conversation easier: 

  • Pick the right time and place to have the conversation. Somewhere private, where you won’t be interrupted, is ideal. Studies have shown that engaging in conversations about mental health while doing an activity, such as cycling, helps people to open up
  • Ask them how they’re feeling. It might sound simple, but its easier if they mention worries about their own mental health, rather than you projecting your concerns onto them. If they begin to open up, listen non-judgmentally and ask open questions to help them explore their own feelings
  • If they haven’t alluded to any issues with their mental health, gently tell them you have concerns, and explain what has lead you to believe this. If they deny any problem, don’t push it – you don’t want your relationship with the individual to break down. You can always try again another time, but it's important they still feel able to talk to you

Getting Help 

Once someone has opened up about their mental health, it’s important to be able to help them with the next steps, both in directing them to sources of support and helping the person to engage with it.

I’ve provided some key phone numbers and resources at the end of this article for emergency and non-urgent situations.

Whether its talking therapy, art therapy, mindfulness, medication or self care with sleep, diet and exercise, there’s so many options for people to try and improve their mental wellbeing. 

It can be overwhelming though, and so as someone supporting a friend, there are things you can do to make it easier. Offer to make the first appointment for them, or offer to accompany the individual to the doctors.

Encouraging them to adopt a healthy lifestyle, getting plenty of exercise, sleep and nutritious foods, can do wonders for someone’s mental health.

You can also provide emotional support, playing an important role in ensuring the person doesn’t feel alone. 

It’s important to keep yourself healthy through all this, as it can take a toll on your own mental wellbeing. All the above resources are also available for those supporting a loved one too. 

Being a mental health first aider is a vital role to play in your community. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) offers workshops and training in Kelowna. 

For more information or to sign up to a course, go to www.cmhakelowna.com

Key Resources

If the person is in a crisis, where you believe their health or someone else’s is at immediate risk, call 911.

The following numbers are also appropriate in an emergency:

Call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) to get help right away, any time of day or night. It’s a free call.
Your Local Crisis Line: call 1-888-353-2273 24 hours a day to connect to a B.C. crisis line. The crisis line operators have received advanced training in mental health issues and services.

Community Response Team (CRT): 250-212-8533. Operates 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., seven days a week.
Kid’s Help Phone: for children and youths aged 5 to 20. Call 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a professional counsellor or text 686868, 24 hours a day. It’s free, confidential, anonymous and available across Canada.

In a non-emergency, an individual can opt for either self-help strategies or seek professional help. The following are examples of resources available:  

Family doctor – they can help connect you with community resources and can also help prescribe medication if this is needed.

Mental Health and Substance Use Services: 505 Doyle Ave., 250-469-7070 (during office hours).
www.heretohelp.bc.ca — a great website for people suffering and also for those trying to support them. Information on local resources, self-help strategies and advice.

Hannah Gibson is a student doctor, originally from the U.K. Through her years at medical school, she's worked in every department from pediatrics through to geriatrics, advocating for both physical and mental health. She's passionate about preventative medicine, and helping people to live happy and healthy lives.

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