Mental Health: How to Become a Mental Health First Responder – Knowledge

Mental illnesses are more common than you think. To be able to help, there is a mental health emergency response program. Photo: AFP / STEPHANIE KEITH


Anyone taking a first aid course should be able to help later in emergency situations. Is this also the case when you train to be a mental health first responder?

First aid is essential for survival. Attending a first aid course makes sense to adequately protect the accident sites, make the emergency call correctly, but also to be able to heal open wounds or broken bones. Learning to lie on your side and mouth-to-mouth is also mandatory to get your driver’s license. A useful offer, but which refers only to physical health. However, psychological well-being is also becoming increasingly important. In Germany, the Mental Health First Aid Program (MHFA), a first aid course for mental health, has existed for some time.

In twelve hours each, participants are first given a basic understanding of mental disorders in general. “The course is really aimed at anyone interested in supporting people in their environment,” says Philipp Himstedt, psychologist and line assistant at MHFA First Aiders. This is very similar to the “normal” first aid course for physical health. “It’s just that there’s a significantly higher chance that someone in our community has a mental health problem,” he adds.

The course aims to reduce stigma

The MHFA project was originally developed in Australia by a health educator and nurse who was herself a was struggling with mental health problems. She received support in her development from her husband, who works as a researcher on the subject of early diagnosis of mental disorders. Scientifically evaluated courses are now offered in 26 countries and there are nearly five million rescuers worldwide. In Germany, the Mannheim Central Institute for Mental Health (ZI) runs the licensed program in partnership with the Beisheim Foundation. Since the end of 2019 he has been training doctors, psychologists and psychotherapists to become course leaders. These then offer first aid courses throughout Germany.

Mental disorders have long ceased to be a social taboo. However, there is still some stigma surrounding the diseases. “Of course, those affected mostly suffer from the disorder itself,” says Himstedt. However, there are often disadvantages due to prejudice at work or in the private sphere, even if there is usually no malicious intent behind it. That’s why first aid courses aim to reduce these stigmatizations – successfully. According to Himstedt, studies have shown that the program has an anti-discrimination effect for participants.

Mental illness can affect anyone

The course also covers the most common mental illnesses. These include depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis, substance abuse and dependence, and suicide. First aid is practiced in practical exercises and role-playing games. For their respective ailments, participants learn how to cope with chronic conditions and acute crises.



The reasons for participating are complex. “Many people want to help, but often they don’t know how. And that’s exactly what they learn during the course,” says Himstedt. The great interest is reflected in the request for courses: 10,000 rescuers have already been trained by the ZI. After all, according to Himstedt, a mental illness can affect anyone, even in their own environment. There are participants where friends, colleagues or family members are concerned. Others have also had their own experiences about it, more than one in four people in Germany experience a mental health problem within one year.

It is important that those affected get help as soon as possible

The first aid course is especially designed for the close environment of friends and relatives. It is about gaining self-confidence in dealing with mental health problems. “I have often experienced how thoughts begin: Can I deal with it? And how should I do it? Am I not making things worse by doing this?” Relates Himstedt It is particularly important that those affected receive help as soon as possible, as this reduces the period of suffering and at the same time increases the chances of success of the therapy.

“An empathic and worthless communication helps when you reach out to them. Say what you notice, speak in the I messages and let them know you have thoughts or concerns, “recommends Himstedt. Participants should also learn through the course what professional help they can advise and how they can support those affected until it is available. Himstedt interprets professional help such as the family doctor as the first point of contact, but also the psychiatric emergency room or telephone consultation service.

With strangers, self-protection is the top priority

It can also happen with strangers who, for example, may encounter psychological problems such as aggressive behavior on the subway. Participants in the first aid course also learn and practice how to react in such situations. What matters is your own appearance to various crisis situations such as acute suicidality, aggression or delusional behavior. In contact with strangers, according to Himstedt, it is important not to put yourself in danger. Self-protection has the highest priority.

In general, it is always important to remain calm. You should also try to verbally reduce escalation. This can be achieved, for example, by using slow, calm and clear language. On the subway, for example, it is important to first create distance by asking the person in danger to get off. In the event of an acute assault, however, even as a course participant you quickly reach your limit, so you should call for support in the form of the police or rescue service.

The costs are around 200 euros

Who is it for Interested in the course and want to participate, currently has to pay around 198 euros. You can participate both online and in person. How many courses are offered per month depends on the course instructors.

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