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Essential Steps in Mental Health First Aid

supporting patient at therapy

Table of Contents

Sharon McCulloch

The sages of old wrote, ‘As a man thinks in his heart, so is he’, and it seems that this is manifestly even more true in the modern era. What this wisdom suggests, of course, is that the way we think, our thoughts and attitudes, affect every single aspect of our lives.

Our thinking is like the rudder of a ship, which ultimately controls how we can navigate through either calm or stormy waters and which can direct the course of our lives. The degree to which our lives can be happy, productive and successful will be because of our mental health.

Though it is vital to the well-being of every one of us, mental health is often shrouded in misunderstanding and stigma. This article attempts to demystify mental health first aid, itself a lighthouse of hope and understanding in the sea fog of mental health crises. We explore the essential steps of mental health first aid, aiming to equip you with the knowledge and skills to offer a listening ear and a helping hand in the darkest of times.


Key Takeaways: How To Respond to Someone with Mental Health Issues

Responding to someone with mental health issues involves:

  1. Listening Actively: Give your full attention and listen non-judgementally.
  2. Offering Support and Understanding: Show empathy and offer reassurance.
  3. Providing Information: Share resources and information about mental health services.
  4. Encouraging Professional Help: Gently suggest seeking help from mental health professionals.
  5. Encouraging Self-Help: Promote self-care and the use of support networks.

By following these steps, you can provide meaningful support that respects the individual’s dignity and personal agency.


Understanding Mental Health First Aid

What is Mental Health First Aid?

Mental health first aid is the help provided to a person who is developing a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of a pre-existing mental health condition or in a mental health crisis. Like physical first aid, it’s given until appropriate professional help is received or the crisis is resolved. Mental health first aid is a vital piece of our collective toolkit, building compassion, connection and a bridge to recovery.


What is the Difference Between Mental Health First Aid and First Aid?

While both forms of first aid aim to provide immediate assistance, mental health first aid focuses on emotional and psychological support for individuals experiencing mental health problems or crises. Traditional first aid, conversely, addresses physical health emergencies. Both require specific training and knowledge which equips people to provide an effective, quality first aid response until professional medical help can be given to the sufferer.


The Impact of Mental Health in Our Communities

Mental health illness have obvious consequences for Australian communities. Numerous reports demonstrate the pervasive presence of mental disorders.

The proceeding estimates come from the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHW), the most rigorous measure of mental illness prevalence in Australia. It included an in-person interview that utilises the World Health Organisation’s Composite International Diagnostic Interview, version 3.0. This instrument indicates diagnoses and does not depend upon the participant’s self-reporting of conditions (ABS 2023b).

Of Australians aged 16–85 between 2020 to 2022, an estimated:

  • 8.5 million had experienced a mental disorder at some point in their life (43% of the population).
  • 4.3 million had experienced a mental disorder in the 12 months prior (22% of the population; Figure 1).

The most prevalent mental illnesses in Australia, in the 12 months preceding to the study, were:

  • Anxiety disorders (3.4 million people, or 17% of the population) 
  • Affective disorders (1.5 million, or 8%)
  • Substance Use disorders (650,000, or 3%) (ABS 2023a).


What are the Three Basic Concepts of Psychological First Aid?

The three foundational concepts of PFA are:

  1. Safety: Ensuring the individual feels physically and emotionally secure.
  2. Calm: Helping reduce stress and providing a soothing presence.
  3. Connection: Linking individuals to personal, familial, and community support.

These concepts aim to stabilise the individual and promote a pathway to recovery.


What Do the 8 Core Principles of Psychological First Aid Involve?

The core principles of PFA guide the approach to providing it effectively:

  1. Promote Immediate and Ongoing Safety: Help individuals feel safe from harm.
  2. Promote Calm: Help individuals manage strong emotions.
  3. Promote Connectedness: Enhance immediate and ongoing support.
  4. Promote Self-Efficacy: Encourage effective individual and community coping strategies.
  5. Promote Hope: Nurture optimism.
  6. Be Non-Intrusive: Offer help that does not overwhelm the individual.
  7. Cultural Competence: Be respectful of all cultural norms and practices.
  8. Empower: Encourage active participation in recovery.

These principles are designed to make sure that PFA is delivered in a respectful, helpful way that respects the individual’s needs and preferences.


Sad, unhappy woman lying on bed in depression.

What Do the 8 Core Actions for Psychological First Aid Include?

Psychological First Aid interventions (PFA) are a vital aspect of mental health first aid, which focuses on lowering initial distress and promoting adaptive functioning and coping. These eight core actions include:

  1. Contact and Engagement: Initiating contact in a non-intrusive, empathetic way.
  2. Safety and Comfort: Making certain of immediate physical and emotional safety.
  3. Stabilisation: Helping individuals calm and orient to their situation.
  4. Information Gathering: Understanding the individual’s needs and concerns.
  5. Practical Assistance: Offering concrete help with immediate needs and problems.
  6. Connection with Social Supports: Encouraging contact with primary support persons such as family and friends.
  7. Information on Coping: Providing advice on stress reactions and coping.
  8. Linkage with Collaborative Services: Connecting individuals with additional services.

These actions form a framework for providing PFA in a variety of settings, from the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident to ongoing support in community settings.


Preparing Yourself to Offer Mental Health First Aid

Cultivating Compassion and Patience

Compassion and empathy lie at the heart of mental health first aid. It’s about refusing to define the person by their condition, believing in them and recognising their inherent worth and dignity. Cultivating empathy means learning to listen deeply, not pronouncing judgment, but instead exercising patience as you walk alongside those in their moments of need.


Educating Yourself on Common Mental Health Issues

Fear is only dispelled by knowledge and acceptance. By educating ourselves about common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, we can become better equipped to spot the signs, offer support, and guide people toward the help they need. There are plenty of resources available for those willing to learn, from literature to mental health first aid courses and workshops conducted by experts in the field.


The ALGEE Action Plan Explained

Basic mental health first aid involves administering the ALGEE action plan:

  • Approach, assess and assist with any crisis
  • Listen non-judgmentally
  • Give support and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies


Approach, Assess, and Assist with Crisis

Typically, a safe and private space should first be found with the individual. It is also crucial to stay calm. Assessing the situation involves understanding the context around the mental health issue and the best course of action to take, always emphasising safety, both immediately and ongoing.


Listen Non-Judgmentally

Listening is the most powerful medicine. Be fully present and allow someone the space to talk. Simple acts, such as offering attention and unrestricted time, can be important to help the person feel heard, understood and supported.


Give Support and Information

When giving support and information: Let the person know you are there for them and that they are not alone. Information regarding mental health services and resources is also important and may help an individual take steps towards seeking help.


Encourage Appropriate Professional Help

Usually, a mental health professional is necessary for recovery. However, it is important to respect the person’s autonomy and ask, instead of telling, where they wish to seek help. This step, too, is difficult to execute and should be done in a calm, thoughtful manner.


Encourage Self-Help and Other Support Strategies

Self-help approaches to recovery are often important, and such strategies may include family, friends and community. Encouraging individuals to explore these avenues can foster a sense of agency, confidence and hope.


Training with First Aid Pro

For those looking to deepen their understanding and skills in mental health first aid, First Aid Pro stands out as a quality provider. Offering comprehensive training that covers the essential steps in mental health first aid, First Aid Pro equips participants with the knowledge and tools to provide practical assistance, emotional support, and much more in a variety of settings.

Enrol in an accredited, nationally recognised course in Mental Health First Aid or Youth Mental Health First Aid today!


Overcoming Challenges in Providing Mental Health First Aid

Dealing with Resistance or Denial

Encountering resistance or denial is not unusual when trying to address mental health issues. It’s a delicate situation that calls for patience and understanding. We must be mindful of the fact that acceptance is a journey, and your support is a torchlight on this path. Gentle persuasion, coupled with consistent, nonjudgmental support, can slowly guide someone towards recognising their need for help. It’s crucial, however, to respect their pace and readiness to accept assistance.


Navigating Crisis Situations

Crises demand immediate and effective responses. Recognising signs of immediate danger, such as threats of self-harm or harm to others, is most important. In these moments, making sure of physical safety and engaging with emergency mental health services are the top priorities. Providing a calm presence, while acting quickly to connect the individual with professional crisis intervention, can be life-saving.


Building a Supportive Community

Promoting Mental Health Education

Education forms the basis of a compassionate community. Workshops, seminars, mental first aid training and online course programmes help us to demystify mental health problems and foster an inclusive and open culture. Education gives us a set of tools with which we can use our hands and words to overcome stigma and help others to seek help without fear of judgment.


Making Connections and Building Networks

People form support networks based on the understanding, compassion and practical help that they provide to one another. Support groups can be formed inside or outside the internet, and social media and can play a vital direct role in improving wellbeing. We could foster the growth of support groups within social media and use it to connect people in need to information, support and care from others in their community.

Diverse people in a rehab session


This article has attempted to highlight that we can do better than our current provision of care for the mental health needs of our community. We need to open up the conversation about what is going on with our particular family, neighbours, school or workmates. We need tangible compassion, but we also need to know how to talk sensitively and safely about mental health.

In truth, we all commit to being part of a shared humanity when entering the difficult world of mental health first aid: reaching out, even in the dark, saying a word, and trying to walk with someone from the dark into the light.

Holding the promise of hope and compassion alive, we can become generous and accredited mental-health first-aid friends. We can become the trusted community members who can say the words and believe in the silent ones. We can find ways to break open barriers and build connections. We can be a place to create bridges of care.

Yes, mental health is something we need to talk about and is something we need to learn to live together, through compassionate awareness, proper education and training and effective strategies and actions. Let’s all learn to practice better mental health first aid together. If it’s been a while since your last mental health training, consider enrolling in an accredited Mental Health Refresher course with First Aid Pro today.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is Involved in Mental Health First Aid?

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is the help provided to an individual who is developing a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of an existing condition, or suffering a mental health crisis. The aim is to offer initial support until professional help is received or the crisis is resolved.

How does Mental Health First Aid differ from traditional first aid?

While traditional first aid trains in how to deal with physical emergencies, Mental Health First Aid trains in how to provide emotional and psychological support to individuals with mental health challenges or crises. Both require specific training to equip people to offer effective help.

What are the key steps in responding to someone with mental health issues?

These encompass listening actively, offering support and understanding, providing information about mental health services, encouraging professional and self-help, as well as the use of support networks.

What are the three basic concepts of Psychological First Aid (PFA)?

The foundational concepts of PFA are making sure of immediate safety, promoting calm, and fostering connection to support the individual’s stabilisation and recovery.

What do the 8 core principles of Psychological First Aid include?

The core principles include promoting safety, calm, connectedness, self-efficacy, hope, being non-intrusive, cultural competence, and enabling the individual.

How can I prepare to offer Mental Health First Aid?

Preparation involves developing compassion and patience, educating oneself on common mental health issues, and understanding and using the ALGEE action plan, which includes approach, which includes: listen nonjudgmentally, giving support and information, encouraging professional help, and encouraging self-help.

What challenges might I face in providing Mental Health First Aid, and how can they be overcome?

Challenges include dealing with resistance or denial and navigating crisis events. Overcoming these challenges requires patience, understanding, and the ability to act promptly and effectively in crises, making sure of safety and connecting the individual with professional help.

What are the 5 steps of mental health first aid?

Mental Health First Aiders learn the 5-step Mental Health First Aid Action Plan (ALGEE): assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

How do you respond to someone with mental health issues?

Expressing your concern and support. Reminding your friend or family member that help is available and that mental health problems can be treated. Asking questions, listening to ideas, and being responsive when the topic of mental health problems comes up. Reassuring your friend or family member that you care about them.

What not to say to someone in crisis?

  • Don’t give unsolicited advice.
  • Don’t invalidate their crisis by comparing it to one of your own, because this is not about you.
  • Do not share your fears or negative feelings with the person in the centre, remember: Comfort IN, Dump OUT.

Is mental health first aid worth doing?

Absolutely! MHFA has been proven to be effective at increasing knowledge regarding mental health, improving someone’s confidence and intention to help, and reducing the stigma towards mental illness.

The content on this website offers general insights regarding health conditions and potential treatments. It is not intended as, and should not be construed as, medical advice. If you are facing a medical emergency, dial 000 immediately and follow the guidance provided.

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