Heather tells us how Mental Health First Aid training has boosted her listening skills and confidence, which is proving extremely useful in her male-dominated workplace…
Being the only female freight train driver in Scotland, Heather Waugh was used to her male colleagues opening up to her. As a naturally caring person, she was always happy to listen and to help.
But after doing Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training, Heather has learned true empathetic listening skills that she says has made her an even better listener and given her the confidence to help others, especially those who might need more structured support.
Here, she talks about putting those skills into use with colleagues as well as closer to home…
What led you to Mental Health First Aid training?
In my job there are literally no other women and I became aware that I can be having the simplest conversation with one of male colleagues and the minute it gets the slightest bit personal, you can see the weight being lifted from them, just because they’ve been able to speak about it.
That made me really aware of the responsibility that you carry when you’re someone that people will talk to; that you want to make those conversations count. But, the question is, where do you take those conversations if they get more difficult?
Nine times out of 10 a simple conversation is enough to give a person a boost but sometimes a person is really in crisis and you don’t know what to do.
Being in that male-dominated environment made me feel I was underqualified – I wanted to help but I didn’t trust myself to do it properly.
My partner had done the MHFA course through the company she works for and had talked about how great it was and how much more confidence she had to be able to help people.
I started looking into it and after finding out what it was all about, I was determined that I wanted to do it. A friend of mine had done the course with Andy and really recommended him, so I contacted Andy…and the rest is history!
How did you find the course?
It was absolutely fantastic and Andy is probably the best presenter on any course I’ve ever been on.
Because I work shifts I had to jump onto three different versions of the course. Sometimes you’re talking about things that are quite deep and difficult, and doing that with three different sets of people you’ve never met before could have been daunting. But, because of Andy’s nature and the way he takes the time to get to know everyone, each time I felt like I was on a course with friends.
Andy has that ability to have a chat about important things but to also make you feel really relaxed. I’m an introvert, so doing these kinds of courses can worry me, but I think I spoke more on the MHFA course than anywhere else because I felt so at ease.
I did the course online and I wasn’t sure how easy it was going to be to talk about these subjects in that environment, but it didn’t feel awkward at all. Andy has such a natural way that he gets the message over but it’s still a really warm environment where everyone feels able to share their experiences and ask questions. It almost felt like sitting in a restaurant with your friends and talking about a serious subject but still keeping it light when it needs to be.
I learned so much about what it really means to be empathetic and listen well, and also when and how to hand the person you’re talking to over to structured support. It feels like I’ve been given the permission and the confidence to approach people. Now I have the skills and the knowledge that I’m not there to be a counsellor, I’m there to do first aid and, if appropriate, help them find the support they need.
What did you learn on the course that really stood out to you?
It blew me away to realise what a rubbish listener I am!
If you had asked me before the course, I would’ve said it was one of my strengths because I care about people and I’m the kind of person people come to with their worries.
I thought I knew how to be approachable and accessible and, while I am those things, it blew me away to realise how little I understood about human nature and what’s needed, and when, to be an empathetic listener.
Because I’ve suffered with my mental health in the past, I thought I knew the best way to approach other people. But I’ve realised you need to see everyone as a blank canvas and be as quiet as possible to just let them talk.
I can’t emphasise enough how much of a lightbulb moment that was for me.
Before the course, my natural response to someone sharing their worries with me would’ve been to give examples of how I understand because of similar things that I’ve been through. I thought that would encourage the person to be more open.
Now I understand that by doing that, I’m just interrupting their train of thought and turning the spotlight onto myself.
How has doing the training changed you?
In my male-dominated work environment, I’m around people who need to be able to talk and I can provide that safe space for them.
I have the listening skills and I also have a list of numbers and plans of action, in case anyone needs more help than I can provide.
Just like CPR, these skills can help you save the life of a stranger or a colleague, but it can also help you save the life of people closer to you.
A close friend of mine lost her husband to cancer last year. Watching her go through that horrific experience but suddenly having the tools to help her underpinned just how important this course is.
Rather than just being a friend I could actually help because I could sense when the right time was to step in and say, ‘Seeing someone professionally could be a helpful option’. I know more about what helpful options are available for people who are struggling; being able to offer that practical help as well as emotional support is really incredible.
There’s nothing more rewarding than being able to give that help to someone you care about.
What advice do you have for someone considering the MHFA training?
I’ve recommended so many people to do this training and everyone I know who’s done it has raved about it.
Everyone comes away from it saying it was 100% valuable and given them skills that can save lives. There’s no more important skill to learn.
Poor mental health will be the greatest threat we face in the next 10 – 30 years. The more people that are armed with the ability to help others, to recognise their own triggers and provide support when needed, the better – for all of us.
There’s a British feeling of not wanting to be someone who interferes or not having the confidence to know when or how to approach someone who’s struggling. I used to be that person but this course has done so much for my confidence and feeling prepared for those kinds of conversations.
Would you recommend the training with Andy, and why?
Absolutely, he’s a 10/10 trainer.
The person who recommended Andy to me is a railway chaplain and someone I viewed as having greater insight into mental health than anyone else I knew.
When I heard he was doing the MHFA course I wondered why, I thought he would have been able to write the course! But when he came back from the course with Andy, you could see the change in him and he was raving about the course and Andy in particular.
So, I had no doubt I wanted to do the course with Andy and I have definitely not regretted it. He puts you at ease and he gets the message across on these serious subjects without losing your participation. It’s like doing the course with someone you’ve known forever, which is key when it’s about something so personal.
He delivers the course but through his own life experience, and that’s what’s great about him – he’s been there.
He genuinely understands about trauma and mental health and what the consequences of that can be, but he’s also very professional. It’s that balance that makes him unique and that really makes the course with him what it is – fantastic.
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