Let’s talk about having trained people on staff who can administer mental health first aid.

Imagine that you injured yourself one day at the office. You’d shout for help and your colleagues would take stock of your injury and rush to get a first aid kit or call the nearest medical care provider. You’d feel safe and cared for because you know that they are trained to take care of you till you can be rushed to the nearest doctor. But what if you replace this physical distress with mental distress? If you were suffering from repeated anxiety attacks, or have acute stress or depression related issues, can you call out to a colleague for help?

You’d hesitate to ask fearing that they’d think you’re bad at your job, or that they won’t be able to help you. You’d choose to deal with it on your own and end up suffering in silence. You would not be the only one in India to do this.

Indian employees spend more time at work compared to their global counterparts, and rising competition means that there is little empathy for those “who cannot carry the load". The pressures of the modern work environment alone can be difficult to cope with, but when combined with the presence of a mental health concern, it often leads to a situation where those afflicted, suffer alone in silence for extended periods of time.

According to WHO, 57 million Indians suffer from depression, a significant number of whom are part of the workforce. A recent survey showed that 46% professionals in Indian firms suffer from extreme stress at work. With only three psychiatrists for every one million Indians, and even fewer psychologists, we are terribly unequipped to provide the right kind of care or treatment for anyone in need of it. Taking these factors into account, perhaps it is not surprising that India has the highest rate of suicide in the world, especially among young people.

These are not just statistics. This is a reflection of the pain that so many around us go through, often without us knowing about it until it is too late. Given that these concerns are affecting a growing number of people in our workplaces, it is high time that we take measures to combat this effectively. One of the most important steps to doing that is to ensure that our workplaces are equipped to handle these concerns.

Most workplaces have staff trained in first-aid, to be the first line of response if a co-worker is in medical distress. Larger organizations often have a doctor or ambulance ready at their premises as part of their workplace safety initiatives. But how many have trained staff to give mental health related first-aid?

Companies that are committed to the overall well-being of their staff, will ensure that they have a staff member who is trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of common mental health concerns and effectively guide a person to the right kind of support. The key things to look out for is changes in a person’s behaviour that might indicate that they are dealing with a mental health related concern—the onset of anxiety, stress disorders, or depression, all start with minor recognizable changes in the way a person behaves. Knowing how to recognize that and respond to that in the right way, will ensure that people will be able to get the help they need early on, without allowing their situation to deteriorate. Offering mental health first aid training for employees also opens up the workplace to conversations about stigma, acceptance and empathy for mental health topics.

Apart from the benefits to individuals, becoming a more mental health sensitive workplace is beneficial to businesses as well. Mental health concerns are becoming the leading cause of absenteeism and even “presenteeism" in workplaces, where people turn up for work but may not be able to function productively. Just as companies run nation-wide fitness awareness campaigns and promote activities to take care of their employees’ physical health, the time is now to do the same for mental health. A mental health crisis can happen to anyone, and knowing the basics of mental health first aid could one day mean the difference between life and death.

Mind Matters is a weekly column which looks to alleviate the stigma around mental health at work. Neerja Birla is the chairperson and co-founder of Mpower, a movement that aims to affect a positive change in the attitude towards mental health.

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