Mental health first aid for everyone

Posted on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Pebbles piled on top of each other.

Photo: Johnson Wang

By Linda Scales

The next Mental Health First Aid course will be offered in French over four half days: February 5, 12, 19 and 26, 2019. An English-language session will be offered on April 4, 11, 18 and 25, 2019 (half days). A minimum of eight participants is required, with a maximum number of 12 participants.


The University of Ottawa is the size of a small city like Timmins, Ontario. But for many employees it is more like a big extended family where they can get a helping hand when the going gets tough.

This explains the support at uOttawa for offering a program over the past few years that teaches employees how to help colleagues and students who are suffering silently — because of the stigma — with mental health problems.

Several times a year, Julie Huot-Hébert and Brigitte Beauseigle, both Advisors, Health and Accommodation at Human Resources, teach Mental Health First Aid, a 12-hour course that teaches participants how to provide support to someone experiencing a mental health problem.

“We give people the skills to do that,” Huot-Hébert says. “It’s really about making people understand that it’s okay to ask for help. And sometimes, for that person, all they’re looking for is someone to say ‘Hey! You look like you’re drowning. Can I help you?’”

The course is offered in both languages by Leadership, Learning and Organizational Development and accredited by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It teaches several skills, including assessing for the risks of suicide or self-harm, giving reassurance and information, and listening without judgment.

The notion of mental health first aid was first developed and put into practice in Australia, in 2001, based on a medical first aid model. Since most people have limited knowledge of mental health problems, mental health first aid programs are heralded for raising awareness of different mental health conditions and, importantly, helping to reduce the stigma. People find it easier to talk about physical injuries, like a broken leg, than about feeling blue or anxious, Huot-Hébert says.

“It’s a demanding course,” she adds. “I love teaching it because it opens people’s eyes, and what’s amazing is people will share their experiences. Everything is confidential. Our big thing is to have fun, to listen and participate.”

Benoit Lefebvre, uOttawa’s Attendance and Wellness Coordinator, has taken the course and said he enjoyed it a lot. “If circumstances ever were to arise, I’m now better equipped to deal with the situation.”

The course is intended for all employees and, in particular, supervisors and managers. “Mental health issues can have a big impact on performance at work, so it’s a question of seeing those things and being able to direct people toward the right services,” Huot-Hébert says. “I think it’s important that everyone be taught to assess a situation.”

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