“There’s a lot of people who would never tell their boss if they were struggling with their mental health”
Natasha Devon is a passionate advocate of Mental Health First Aid in the workplace.
She also regularly tours schools and colleges advising young people on how they can stay mentally healthy and body positive, and writes regularly for the Guardian.
Spreading such valuable awareness has lead to the Sunday Times and Debretts naming Natasha one of 2016’s most influential people in Britain.
Hi Natasha, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on campaign with Mental Health First Aid England and Bauer Media.
We are petitioning the government for a change in workplace legislation, to make it compulsory to have mental health first aiders on site in the same way that you have physical health first aiders.
If you’re at work and you cut your finger there’s probably somebody on site who has a box full of plasters and knows what to do.
But if you have a panic attack, there won’t necessarily be anyone with the knowledge to help you.
That’s why we think it would be sensible to have people trained in giving both physical and mental assistance!
Are you Mental Health First Aid trained? Can you explain a little about the process?
I am yes. There’s a number of different techniques you can use.
In the case of a panic attack, the first is always to regulate someone’s breathing.
You might ask somebody to focus on your hand and to breathe in time, with your hand going up and down slowly.
This not only regulates breathing but also helps to focus them.
Being positioned next to a wall is also important, so if they do faint they don’t collapse on you.
Once you’ve regulated their breathing, the core of the Mental Health First Aid course is about non-judgemental listening skills.
Talking to them about what caused the anxiety.
Helping them to understand what their triggers are, and what they can do if it happens again.
How do you think Mental Health First Aid will change the workplace?
Time taken off for stress and back pain (90% of which is caused by stress) are a huge cost to the economy.
Also, the earlier you spot a mental health issue, the more treatable and manageable it is.
So if you have people in your office who are primed to spot the early signs and symptoms, and to help people to manage them then that’s going to save you money.
Bauer Media also conducted their own surveys for this campaign and found there’s a lot of people who would never tell their boss if they were struggling with their mental health.
If they had to take time off work they would pretend it was for something else.
That doesn’t help their quality of life, or help their employer to get the best out of them.
For example, when you are first on mental health medication, it can be really difficult to get up in the mornings.
A really simple thing is to speak to your employer. Ask to start work two hours later and finish two hours later.
If you don’t have communication, the employee is going to feel shame and guilt – and perhaps start to feel even worse.
The employer is going to lose money. MHFA training makes sense across the board!
The word resilience is used a lot when describing mental health. How do we become more resilient?
It’s about equipping somebody with techniques so that if things happen to them they can say
‘I’ve got some tools I can use to try and deal with this’.
You’ve spoken a lot recently on the issue of academic pressure for young people. Is the curriculum something that you are campaigning to change?
I don’t think the curriculum is fit for purpose.
Ironically the people that get to influence policy are the people who have benefited from it as it is.
I asked an advisor for David Cameron ‘who picks what we study in schools?’
He told me, the reason that you studied what you studied was because it works. But that’s the problem, it doesn’t work for everybody!
He’s the person influencing policy, but this policy is not taking everybody into account.
You’ve also been vocal on the issue of social media?
I’m conflicted about social media. I think although it’s responsible for some negative stuff, it is also a handy scapegoat.
You’ll have seen Jeremy Hunt talking about ‘going in on Facebook’
That conveniently absolves the government of other things they’ve directly contributed to, that are making young people anxious and depressed.
I’m not a fan of the way social media has often been used as a way to deflect from other things.
We are able to say things online that we wouldn’t say face-to-face.
That can provide a nice segue into having that conversation in real life.
I’m good friends with Jonny Benjamin who is also a mental health campaigner. He began talking about having schizoaffective disorder on his blog on YouTube, because he found it easier to open up to a camera than to look somebody else in the eye.
Now he is really comfortable talking about it – but he needed that in between stage to get there.
As someone with anxiety, how did you become a strong public speaker? Are there any tools you use to stay calm?
I feel I’m doing it for other people, who are struggling or feeling vulnerable.
They need a voice. I’ve got to deliver for them.
I really struggle with claustrophobia which isn’t ideal living in London.
Also I struggle with paranoid thoughts.
I’ve had to learn that’s just anxiety’s voice.
Just let that exhaust itself, because it’s not got any relation to reality.
Natasha has given us some tips for staying mentally healthy for Going Through The Emotions. Her latest book A Beginners Guide to Being Mental: An A-Z is available here.
Learn more about Mental Health First Aid here.
Natasha is supporting a campaign to make it compulsory to have a mental health first aider at work #wheresyourheadat. Find our more here.