Mental health is something I've been interested in for a very long time. It’s not just a professional interest - I've had personal experience as my father suffered depressive episodes and I always wanted to know how I could best support him. I’ve also worked with people suffering from stress and work related pressures (and have suffered in high stress periods myself) and wanted to know how to help in the work context. So it’s fantastic that my career at the Office of Rail and Road allows me the opportunity to build on this interest in a very practical and rewarding way.
I'm the deputy director of strategy and reform at ORR and I'm a mental health first aider. I am also the sponsor for our Mental Health First Aider Network. This means that I'm working with mental health first aiders across the organisation to make sure that we have a strong community, that we can share experiences and knowledge, and work together to help our colleagues.
I see the role of a mental health first aider as a lot like a regular first aider. The idea is that we're the first point of contact, really, for anybody who's struggling in any way, and just wants somebody to talk to.
We’re not qualified therapists or counsellors or anything like that - in the same way that a regular first aider is not a qualified doctor. But we have had training in how to listen in a non-judgmental way and point people in the direction of where they may be able to get some help.
So we're really the first point of call of just helping people talk stuff through and then saying, have you thought about this? or you might want to try this. Or even just fancy a chat and a cuppa?
The training, which is organised through MHFA England, was really helpful in teaching me how to actively listen, to understand what can cause poor mental health, and to give me confidence to talk to people about what they are experiencing. It also signposted a wealth of different sources of help, and places that people can go and talk to and get advice, such as through their GP, advice websites or different organisations.
We currently have 10 people trained up to offer support to colleagues, with another three going on the course soon. It’s been very rewarding to see people’s enthusiasm to get involved. But it’s not just mental health first aiders who can help. I would like to see managers feeling confident to have wellbeing conversations with their teams. I’m already hearing that some team meetings are now starting with a “how are you doing” session – which is really good the hear.
Removing the stigma
We're very much trying to remove the stigma from talking about how you’re feeling mentally. If you'd hurt your arm or your leg, you wouldn't have any problem talking to people about it, it would be part of casual conversation. But if mentally you're not feeling ok, people can feel a lot more nervous about having conversations about it. And so we’re working to try to remove this stigma and encouraging people to have normal conversations about mental health.
I think it’s important to remember that's not always about ill health either, it's good health as well, simply saying: “How are you feeling today?” and actually meaning it.
Someone might say: “Today I'm feeling great, yesterday not so great, and let's have a conversation about that.”
ORR as a supportive employer
For ORR as an organisation, it's really important that we think about the health of our employees both physically and mentally. We promote the Mental Health First Aider Network across our buildings, on the Intranet and through awareness events and days like World Mental Health Awareness Day and Brew Monday. So it's all about this trying to help people, support people and make sure that they can work effectively and enjoy working as well.