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Mental Health First Aid

by Mary Tjotjos

Research from the UK suggests that the Coronavirus pandemic has taken a significant toll on mental well-being. A report from its Office for National Statistics finds that one in five adults experienced some kind of depression at the beginning of the year, more than twice the number that was reported in the period prior to COVID-19.

This is not surprising when we consider what we have all been through in the past two years. Our health has been compromised, our earnings have been curtailed, our careers have been derailed and we have spent far too much time isolating ourselves from other people. The human spirit can only take so much uncertainty, anxiety and isolation, and we have all had more than our fair share.

This has been particularly notable in my industry (hospitality), where business has been severely impacted by the drastic reductions in international travel. The economic impact of COVID-19 on the travel industry is perhaps only matched by the psychological impact on those of us who work in this field. The recovery of our industry is dependent not only on the return of international travel but on the industry’s ability to hire, develop and retain a psychologically resilient workforce to perform the difficult work of rebuilding the business.

To that end, one thing we have done in my company is to arrange “Mental Health First Aid” certification training to a number of people across the organization. This two-day training gives volunteers a basic understanding of mental health issues, from garden variety stress and anxiety, to mental illness, to eating disorders, to self-harm and suicide ideation. The course also highlights the stigmas associated with mental health that far too often prevent people from coming forward when they need help.

I volunteered to take the certification myself to learn more about this idea of “mental health first aid.” I’ve always believed that the greatest benefits of our spa experiences come from the psychological impact on well-being. I think of our spa colleagues as administering mental health first aid to every guest who comes in to our spas. The therapists in the spa give their clients their time, their attention, a nurturing attitude and a comforting touch. Sometimes, this is all people really need. The more we can educate ourselves on the mental health needs of the population, the better we can serve our guests.

We now have 48 people around the world who have been certified as Mental Health First Aiders (at least one in every one of our hotels). It will be hard to connect our investment in this program directly back to tangible economic results. The ROI will only be found in quiet conversations between co-workers in private spaces. Those conversations have the potential to drive the well-being of our colleagues, who then take care of our guests, who then bring business to our hotels. There is no recovery of the hospitality industry that does not begin with a well workforce.

Certified mental health first aiders are not qualified to diagnose any mental disorder and they are not trained to prescribe any specific remedies. But they are a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, someone who can raise an alarm if they think someone needs serious help, and someone who can refer people to other, more qualified resources when the need arises.

I like to think all of us have, at one point or another, received mental health first aid from a colleague, a friend or a loved one. And we have all, at one point or another, given mental health first aid to someone else in need. What I am most excited about with this new certification is how it has elevated the conversation around mental health in our group. Mental health burdens are often weathered in silence. But creating a healthier workplace means building a culture where mental health conversations are not only welcomed, but encouraged.

JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.

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