The Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) program has been in place at the Cologne Graduate School of Ageing Research (CGA) since the beginning of 2022. It’s designed to raise awareness of mental illnesses, reduce stigmatizing behaviors and strengthen agency and knowledge of available resources. Most importantly, we want to provide first aid to all of our students and members in times of crisis, stress, conflict, and possible mental illnesses.
Klara Schilling (CGA Class of 2020, MPI AGE) and Saygin Bilican (CGA Class of 2019, CECAD) have recently become Mental Health First Aiders for both their institutions and the CGA graduate school. We spoke with them to learn why they chose to be trained and hear about their experiences.
Klara and Saygin, can you explain what the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) program entails?
Klara: We learned about common mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, and drug and alcohol abuse. In the theoretical parts of the program, we focused on the possible symptoms that might be visible. But the course also contained practical elements that gave us the opportunity to roleplay how to approach people that might suffer from mental issues in a respectful and mindful way.
Saygin: In my case, it was a week-long workshop explaining mood and psychotic disorders and substance addiction. We were trained on how to recognize certain patterns of behavior, how to approach the person and how to direct them for further help. We are not mental health professionals per se but it was a helpful workshop for learning “how to manage the situation” and care for the person until professional help steps in, just like physical first aid.
Why did you volunteer to be trained as an MHFA? Why do you think mental health first aid is important?
Klara: I consider mental health support a very important topic. During my time in research institutions, I met many people that struggled with their mental health. However, I noticed that often people are afraid or ashamed to talk about it or to look for professional counseling or therapy. My hope is that MHFA can destigmatize mental health issues and help make it more publicly acknowledged and considered.
Saygin: Even though it is becoming less and less of a taboo, mental health is still a tough topic for many people to tackle. For me it seems that most people still have the idea that mental health is not as important as physical health. Well, until they face a crisis themselves. During these times, if they feel lost or struggle to get the help they need, MHFA provides a temporary sustain and direction. So instead of feeling completely helpless which most of us feel to some degree from time to time, having a contact person alleviates the situation a bit.
What did you learn during the MHFA training program? Is there anything you see, understand, or address differently after having completed the training?
Klara: My impression is that a big part of MHFA is based on considerate interaction with each other and caring for the people around you. However, nowadays we tend to be in a hurry and forget about these basic social concepts.
Of course, MHFA also provides you with knowledge and tools on how to give first-aid support for people in need and it involves quite serious topics, too. One of the topics we talked about is suicidality. A question came up: What do you do if you talk to someone and you have the impression that person might have suicidal thoughts? We learned that we can and, in some situations, even should specifically ask about it instead of making hypothetical hints.
Saygin: It is important to understand that you are a first-aider. As much as you would like to help the person; having the wrong approach, stepping outside of boundaries or having assumptions could make the situation worse. It‘s also essential to assess carefully and have the right attitude and adjust it to the case. Just as applying a tourniquet is not going to help a person having a heart-attack, insisting people to go seek professional help immediately may make them more reluctant if they have doubts about it. It is better to talk the situation through with the person and clear any uncertainty they have in mind. I also completely agree with Klara that it was really surprising to learn that having an open conversation about suicide is more helpful than tip-toeing around it. Yes, it might feel heavy for the mental health first aider dealing with it, but stepping out of your comfort zone is so important as it can save a person’s life.
How should CGA students and staff at your institutions approach you? Why should they choose to approach you if they are still hesitant? And what would you do first? What are the first steps if the person actually needs professional support?
Klara: I’d be happy to have a coffee with anyone and listen to what they would like to share. You can visit me in the lab or email me in case you are interested in meeting up. I can imagine it’s scary to share personal things and make yourself vulnerable to someone you might not know. But I hope you can profit from this interaction. Honestly, you would probably be surprised to know how many people look for and benefit from professional help. Did you know that the MPI has an “Employee and Management Assistance Programme”? The EMAP is a cooperation with the Fürstenberg Institute which is free of charge, anonymous and offers immediate counseling services for all employees of the Max Planck Society. You can read about this on the intranet of the MPI for Biology of Ageing. Calling them is a great first step.
Saygin:I am open to all emails and personal visits from people who think they need someone to talk to right then and there. As there is no fixed solution for everyone, the first thing I would have to do is listen and understand. From personal experience, I feel better even right after talking about my problems and having someone listening to me. Even the “off-your-chest” feeling can already help you to see things more clearly, manage the crisis better and take a first step to overcome it. Then we would have to talk about our options of sustained support, whether it is professional help or clarification of doubts. I know that Cologne Student Services (KSTW) provides psychological counseling for students in need and they are very friendly people! We can make the appointment together, or even go to the first appointment together.
Is there anything you are personally afraid of or uncomfortable within your position as MHFA? Do you have any previous experience with counseling or support that you could offer?
Klara: I don’t want anyone to mistake us for professionals in this topic. We are not. We are no therapists or psychologists. We are trained MHFA with a background knowledge of providing first-aid support in a psychological crisis or mental illness and we are easily approachable locals that care about our coworkers. We can help you getting in touch with the professionals that have the knowledge to actually change your life for the better.
Saygin: People have to bear in mind that just as first-aiders cannot perform a surgical operation, mental health first-aiders cannot provide professional help on their own. We are open to listening to you as many times as you need, but having a professional listen to you is necessary if averting a crisis through the help of a MHFA person did not make things better in the long term.