Mental Health First Aid

By Professor Anthony Jorm

Back in the 1990s, my wife Betty Kitchener and I were walking our dog one evening and had a conversation about why first aid programs like those run by Red Cross and St John Ambulance don’t cover how to help people experiencing mental health crises.

This seemed a big omission, as it is much more likely that someone will have contact with a person who is suicidal than they will with a person requiring CPR.

To fill this gap, we decided to develop a Mental Health First Aid course. We got it going in a small way in 2000, with Betty working as a part-time volunteer instructor. The course was designed for members of the public to teach them how to assist a person who is developing a mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. For example, they are suicidal, have had a traumatic experience, or are out of contact with reality.

When we started this program, we realised that we needed international guidelines on what a member of the public should do in these situations, just as there are international guidelines on how to do physical first aid, such as how to perform CPR.

We applied for a grant to Australian Rotary Health to develop these guidelines and were successful. The guidelines are now used to inform what is taught in Mental Health First Aid training across the world.
Although Mental Health First Aid started in a small way in Australia, it has now spread to 25 countries. More than one million Australians have done a Mental Health First Aid course, and more than six million people worldwide. This program is really making a difference, and everything that is taught is based on research supported by Australian Rotary Health.

Betty and I were so impressed with the support that Australian Rotary Health has given to research on mental illness that we became Rotarians ourselves and are currently members of the Rotary Club of Coffs Harbour, NSW.

The work on Mental Health First Aid has now been passed on to the next generation of researchers. Our younger colleagues Dr Laura Hart and Dr Claire Kelly have developed Teen Mental Health First Aid, which is a school-based program for adolescents to learn how to support their peers with mental health problems.

Australian Rotary Health has supported a randomised controlled trial on the benefits of the teen training. The positive findings from this research helped the course spread around Australia and to a number of other countries, including the US, where it received funding from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.
The next step has been the development of Mental Health First Aid for Supporting Children, again led by Laura and Claire. The course teaches adults, such as parents and teachers, how to support primary-school aged children with mental health problems. Once again, the support of Australian Rotary Health has been vital, with funding currently provided to carry out a trial to evaluate this course.

Professor Anthony Jorm served on the Australian Rotary Health Research Committee from 2000, serving as Chair in 2010-12. He remains on the committee today. Tony and his wife Betty Kitchener AM recently joined the Rotary Club of Coffs Harbour, NSW. He remains in an honorary capacity at the University of Melbourne.

MAIN PICTURE: The Teen Mental Health First Aid program has spread across the globe, including the US, where it has been adopted by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.