Normalising conversations at work about the ups and downs of life is a powerful first step for a workplace to recognise its employees as imperfect, fallible humans, says Joel Clapham, the Founder and Chief Mental Health Champ of Hearten Up, a program dedicated to mental health first aid and suicide prevention training.
An accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor, Joel is no stranger to mental health trials of his own. “My mental health story is a bit like a J R. R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin series, many volumes.”
“When I was 16, I lost my father to suicide. And that was quite a challenge, to say the least. I mourned his passing, but I don't think I ever dealt successfully with the grief and the trauma of the method of his passing,” says Joel.
But in the years since that experience, he began to see the effects.“Where it all started to come to a head for me was between 2012 and 2016. There were differing pressures, work, home and in my mind that I was keeping to myself.
“To be perfectly candid with you. I got to the point where I was probably one bad day away from walking out onto a balcony at work and not coming back from that balcony. And so, I went and saw my GP because I have the silver lining of my dad's passing of knowing what not to do, which is to keep it to yourself and do nothing.”
Backed by his doctor, Joel took time off work to deal with his home life struggles. The break evolved to a long journey of redefining and rediscovering his passions in life – to help other people with their mental health and encourage them to do the same.
On the role of a Mental Health First Aider in the workplace Joel explains:
"We offer that immediate support and we encourage some discussion and thought about drawing on the help of the professionals. Our role is not to diagnose or treat. Just like a physical First Aider, it's an assessment triage and coordination point.”
Challenging misconceptions that it’s not good to talk about suicide, Joel shared that current research by Beyond Blue shows us that it is helpful to ask someone if they are feeling suicidal.
“The evidence base that research uncovered shows that it doesn't put the idea in people's head but that it will show them that we're comfortable discussing something which they might feel is a very dark taboo topic.
“But if we open that door for them and ask them respectfully and compassionately, ‘You seem as though things are weighing on you and that would be something that would be quite challenging for you to deal with. Have you had any thoughts of suicide?’ That opens the door for them to say, 'Yeah, I don't want to do that, but I have had some thoughts of that being a possible path for me'.
“It's at that point that we then need to stay with them and keep them safe for now and recognise our role as a Mental Health First Aider, and not solving a situation, but then bring in the professional emergency help”, says Joel.
For those who are not at risk of immediate danger or harm, we can share our struggles with mental health or those of high-profile figures.
“Often we find that allowing someone just to talk can be really powerful for them”, says Joel.
From there, a Mental Health First Aider should connect them with the professionals. “Even making that first phone call to make an appointment for them and with them can be a pressure that we can help alleviate on the person who can do with that support.”
Watch the full interview below. Members can also register for our upcoming webinar on Mental Health First here and access a range of resources on mental health on our website.
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (00:14):
What is mental health first aid?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (00:18):
Well, mental health first aid is the support and guidance that someone can provide to someone who's either experiencing a mental health crisis or developing a mental health problem. So it's the peer support and guidance from that point of someone not being OK to taking those first steps towards their recovery journey.
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (00:40):
Is it preemptive or is it you're responding to a crisis?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (00:44):
Well, it's, it's both, depending on a Mental Health First Aiders assessment of a person or a situation. Of real paramount importance is the ability to notice and to perceive when someone may not be their usual self. And that can be a preemptive discussion with someone saying that you've noticed that they're not their usual chipper self and that there might be something going on, or it might be at the other end where someone is in crisis and it's very clear that they are not well or that they are perhaps disconnected from the world around them. So that can apply in, in both or many situations in between.
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (01:23):
Could you share your own mental health experience with us and whether you received any workplace support?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (01:31):
Absolutely, my mental health first aid or my mental health story rather, it's a bit like a JRR Tolkien or George RR Martin series, many volumes. And when I was 16, I lost my father to suicide and that was quite a challenge to say the least. And it was something that I something that I, I came to, you know, I mourned his passing, but I don't think I ever dealt successfully with the grief and the trauma of the method of his passing. Where it all sort of started to come to a head for me was between sort of 2012 and 2016. And I gradually became more and more flat, withdrawn, disinterested, and lethargic. I wasn't able to take care of my mental health as well as I would have liked. There were differring pressures, work, home, in my own mind that I was keeping to myself, you know, to be perfectly candid with you. I got to the point where I was probably one bad day away from walking out onto a balcony at work and not coming back from that balcony and so I went and saw my GP because I have the silver lining of my dad's passing of knowing what not to do, which is to keep it to yourself and do nothing. So I went and saw my GP and he was fantastic and remains fantastic. In terms of workplace support which is the other part of your question. One of those places was absolutely fantastic. They were great. I had a wonderful line manager who was a really good human being and really supportive. And, and we had a good professional relationship where open and constructive feedback in a professional sense was really encouraged and fostered. And that sort of developed a really good trust between us. And so I took the opportunity to trust him with now some other things that were going on just to give some context to how I was. And he was brilliant, really supportive and encouraging. And the HR team at that workplace were really, really supportive.
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (03:41):
So how can managers and people leaders build their capability and confidence in providing mental health first aid?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (03:49):
Something I think that's easily lost and overlooked is we are all human beings and we are not any of us, perfect. And we're not any of us infallible. And all of us will experience periods of challenge to varying degrees at some point in our life. And that might be for a number of reasons. It might be triggered by events, or it might be just something that we deal with. You know, mental illness affects one in five people in Australia in any one year it's not uncommon and something that I would love to see, and I know that this is difficult and will require some, some vulnerability and bravery from people. But I would love to see a general staff meeting start with a business leader, just give a quick two to five minute update on their general wellbeing before they talk about the workplace successes or the workplace challenges.
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (04:42):
I can't think of anything more admirable than a business leader standing up in front of a group of people and saying something along the lines of, "I know sales fell short of our targets for the last quarter. And for the last week, I've been really flat about that. And that's something I know that we'd all like to improve upon, but it's okay to feel disappointed and feel a little bit let down by, by our own self. But it's been a week now and let's talk about the ways that we can try and address that or readdress that."
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (05:13):
So when, and how should people start to involve mental health professionals or refer people to, I mean, what, how do you go from the conversation to the next step? And, and when do you do that?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (05:29):
Good question, it's going to be different in most circumstances. And that depends on a few different factors. One, it depends on and most importantly, the person themselves that we're trying to support and assist. There might be some reluctance to even have a discussion with someone about how they're traveling and that's okay. It's understandable. But one of the key skills a Mental Health First Aider is taught and develops is that raising the, and discussing what those hesitations might be, can be really positive way to, to try and counteract them and address them. And we can encourage people to, you know, first of all, if we, if there's no crisis situation and they're not in any immediate danger of, of harm, you know, with respect to confidence of others, we can share our own struggles and journeys if we have had them, or we can share even the, the public stories of high profile figures, who've taken time out to deal with what it is that they're facing. But one of the things that a Mental Health First Aider is also really cognizant of is that our role is not to diagnose or treat just like a, a physical First Aider, it's really an assessment triage and coordination point. So with Mental Health First Aiders, it's, it's very much the same. We offer that immediate support and we encourage some discussion and thought about drawing on the, the help and guidance of professionals. And we would try and do that in a really compassionate and nonjudgmental way.
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (07:03):
What about when it's a crisis such as when someone's disclosed to you that they are suicidal, what do you do?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (07:12):
Yeah, really really confronting situation. There's been some really good research come out in the last couple of years driven by, Beyond Blue and funded by the Federal Government. And there was a campaign last year called 'You Can Talk About Suicide' and what that did was help sort of shift the comfortable or people's comfort with discussing and asking people if they had thought about self harm or suicide, and contrary to what was most common thinking prior to a few years ago, it is a positive thing to ask someone directly if they are having suicidal thoughts. The evidence base that, that research uncovered shows that it doesn't put the idea in people's head but that it will show them that we're comfortable having a discussion about something which they might feel is a very dark, taboo topic.
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (08:07):
But if we open that door for them and ask them respectfully and compassionately, and it's at that point that we we then need to stay with them and keep them safe for now and recognize our role as a mental health first aider and, and myself in a situation, but then bring in the professional emergency help. So that the three key steps of dealing with someone in a suicidal crisis, that's a to ask them directly, keep them safe for now and connect them with the professional emergency support that they need to gradually bring in their journey to recovery.
Lisa Annese | DCA CEO (08:44):
What are some practical things that workplaces can do more generally to encourage a mentally healthy workplace?
Joel Clapham | Hearten Up Founder (08:53):
I'm going to sound like a bit of a, maybe a spiritual broken record here, but I think just wearing our humanity on our sleeve is one of the more positive things that we can do. And if we normalize conversations about the ups and downs of us as humans in our work lives, that is a really, really powerful first step to laying a foundation for a workplace that recognizes their people as humans. I think some of the wellbeing programs and the employment employee assistance programs that different companies have are really, really good particularly the ones that focus on what I call the four foundations of good physical and mental health, which are good sleep, good nutrition, good exercise, and good connections, with those four corners underneath, or those four pillars underneath us. Workplaces that provide opportunities for people to increase their knowledge and involvement in growing those areas are really, really setting themselves up for a really engaged and much more healthy and well-rounded workforce.