Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria

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World Mental Health Day: What is Psychological First Aid?

On Monday, October 10th, we celebrated World Mental Health Day. Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) dedicates a day to raise awareness for the millions of people all over the world who are dealing with mental health issues. As someone who has worked in the mental health field for over 25 years, I can’t begin to express how pleased I am that we now have a day dedicated to mental health awareness, globally. For a large part of my career, mental health issues were often stigmatized and hidden from the world, but as society has progressed, we are now able to more openly discuss these issues.

This year, the WHO chose “Psychological First Aid” as the World Mental Health Day theme. When we think first aid, we often picture either a first aid kit or a first responder like a police officer or firefighter. Psychological first aid is different. Instead of quickly responding to and healing physical injuries, psychological first aid is a practice that involves treating people for psychological damage after traumatic incidents.

Psychological first aid (PFA) is defined as “the evidence-informed approach for assisting people in the aftermath of disaster and terrorism.” PFA occurs when trained individuals quickly assess a person’s mental health after an incident, and can help them remain calm and get them the psychological assistance they need, as opposed to letting them deal with the traumatic event on their own. For example, PFA is often utilized when people in a war-torn nation have been subjected to a violent event. Field workers who specialize in the subject are brought in to help the people who have witnessed the trauma, and have been trained to give them the proper psychological attention they need.

We live in a world where, unfortunately, traumatic events occur. War, natural disasters and violence occur frequently all over the globe. On a smaller scale, accidents can happen in our own communities that leave us mentally shaken.

For example, a recent train derailment in New Jersey resulted in the death of a woman waiting on the platform. This shocking incident would have been traumatic for not only those directly involved, but for anyone connected to the situation. After an event like this occurs, it’s crucial to assess the physical health of all those involved, but neglecting to treat them immediately for psychological trauma can result in long-lasting scars on a person’s mental health.

Say one of your colleagues witnesses a horrific car crash on their way to work. Once they get to the office, they attempt to go about their day, business as usual, instead of processing the intense emotions they feel after witnessing that event. If internalized for too long, this employee might suffer from long-term mental health issues as a result, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. It’s important that HR managers have the knowledge to deal with a situation like this as fast as possible.

Training for psychological first aid is similar to that of physical first aid, in that you need to take a course in order to be properly trained. For those HR managers who have not yet taken the course, here are a few “first-steps” on how you can help someone who has just been through a crisis:

After assessing the environment for safety concerns and familiarizing yourself with the event that has taken place:

  1. Make contact. It’s important that you approach this person respectfully. It’s hard to judge what they might be thinking at that moment, as they will most likely be experiencing shock. As you carefully begin talking to them, let them know you are here to help and will keep them safe.
  1. Ask about needs and concerns. While this may seem obvious in some situations, it’s important to ask what they need at that moment and what their priorities are. If they need to make a call, you can help facilitate that.
  2. This is the most important step of PFA. If the employee is willing to talk, it’s crucial that you listen to what they have to say. Talking about a traumatic event can be difficult but it allows people to feel less alone.
  3. Refer them to your organization’s EAP. They have the tools to handle these kinds of situations, and will be able to assist your employee throughout the healing process.

Traumatic events don’t just impact the people directly involved. If someone in your office has been through a crisis, it can impact the entire workplace. Unfortunately, we live in a world where accidents happen. I’m so pleased that World Mental Health Day has been able to spotlight this necessary training. It’s important that HR managers know the basic principles of PFA, in case they ever need to utilize it in their workplace and help an employee through a difficult situation.



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Does Your Organization Consider Mental Health a Public Safety Issue?

Mental-Health_0Should mental health care be considered a public safety issue? The recent crash of a Germanwings plane that took the lives of 150 people certainly highlights this question.

Although still under investigation, this tragedy has brought to the forefront the issue of responsibility of employers to ensure their staff are physically and mentally fit to perform their job duties. As tragic as the apparently intentional actions of the pilot are to fathom, Canadian aviation authorities assure us that this was a rare occurrence. But for this particular airline, and for many of us travellers all around the world, mental illness has now entered the realm of public safety.

We all know the stats – one in five Canadians will suffer with a mental health issue at any given point in their lives. What this tragedy reminds us is that no one is immune to this stat: not pilots, dentists, doctors or any other professional who has responsibility over the lives and health of others in their work.

Federal authorities have long known the risk that some untreated mentally ill people can pose, so whose responsibility is it to report and document these individuals? Doctors and therapists are required by law to report to the federal government employees who operate or direct aviation equipment who they determine are living with depression, suicidal tendencies, or other mental health-related symptoms. Certain industries, particularly those dealing with public safety, are strongly regulated to avoid potential tragedies.

No employer wants their employees to struggle with this or any health issue. Responsible employers foster a healthy and safe work environment, and want to empower their employees to seek counselling. This is why many Canadian employers have incorporated external EAP (Employee Assistance Plan) services to help them follow best practices when there is a perceived risk to the mental health of the individual, especially in safety sensitive situations.

While EAPs need to work within the limits of the law, EAPs who assess employees to be at risk of harming others, or themselves, have a professional and legal obligation to report this information to the proper authorities, including the employer if the workplace is at risk.

Being an employer responsible for the emotional wellbeing of your employees means supporting and accommodating your employees for the overall health of not just the employee, but your entire organization.

Are there any situations where the perceived risk to the mental health of the individual supersedes public safety? I look forward to discussing this in the comments below.