Monday 8 October marks a special milestone for the Where’s Your Head At? campaign led by Natasha Devon and Lucie Cave, as a petition to make it compulsory to have a Mental Health First Aider in every place of work, will be delivered to the Prime Minister
Natasha Devon, campaigner, author and founder of the Mental Health Media Charter, speaks to Happiful about this campaign to improve the mental health of the nation by ensuring employers look after the wellbeing of their workforce.
Natasha, tell us about Where's Your Head At?
Where’s Your Head At? is a campaign to change the law so that there is a requirement for businesses to have mental health first aiders, in just the same way as we have mandatory ‘regular’ first aiders.
Why is this campaign important to you?
My passion for making this change comes from a number of sources. First of all, I don’t think it’s any secret that I’ve been frustrated by the government’s record on mental health. Despite promising parity of esteem in 2011, it has seemed to be all rhetoric and no action since. This would be one step they could take to show they are prepared to make structural changes. And it is structural change that is needed - I’m all for educating and awareness raising but there comes a point where the laws of the land and our society needs to reflect our increased understanding of what mental health is and the role it plays in our lives.
My other motivation is more personal. I had what I now realise were some terrible experiences with employers before I got help for my eating disorder in 2006. I was humiliated, disciplined and generally had my belief that I was lazy, useless and unprofessional reinforced by the people around me at work. It’s true I wasn’t the best employee - I was very poorly. But after recovery, I’ve had a successful career which shows the asset I could have been if I had been given the right support.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with Bauer Media and Mental Health First Aid England?
The campaign was initially the brainchild of myself and Lucie Cave, who is Editor in Chief of Heat Magazine and also the closest person to a superhero I’ve ever met. She managed to get all the brands Bauer look after (Grazia, Kiss FM, Magic, Empire etc) on board and coordinate a brilliant media campaign involving celebrity interviews from the likes of Professor Green, Peter Andre, virtually the entire cast of Love Island and Megan McKenna, all whilst heavily pregnant!
Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) are the official providers of mental health workplace training in England, so it made sense also to collaborate with them. They’ve been instrumental in providing resources and talking to business leaders so that they really understand what MHFA is and the benefits it could bring to their company.
I should also say here that Luciana Berger, who is chair of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health, has been absolutely fantastic in advising us on parliamentary procedure and pushing Where’s Your Head? at from a political perspective.
The main person from MHFA who has been working with us on the campaign is Eleanor Miller - so it’s basically four women trying to change the world!
You currently have around 197,000 signatures on your petition, what does this mean to you?
You always try as a campaigner to focus your energies on the issues which resonate with people. To have that instinct confirmed by hundreds of thousands of people renews my determination to make this change in law happen. I feel like I have an army of supporters beside me spurring me on. I’ve also been inundated with people telling me about their experiences at work - similar to mine - which shows that, 12 years later, it’s still very much happening.
Give us three reasons why this campaign is so important and deserves everyone's backing?
Our study found 50% of people who have had to take time off work for a mental health issue told their boss they were absent for a different reason. Many employers still don’t understand that mental illness is not a personal failure and can be recovered from and managed just like physical illness can. MHFA courses teach you that mental health exists on a spectrum of which we are all part. Every office needs staff who understand that.
MHFA courses teach you what to say and, crucially, what not to say to a colleague who has a mental health issue. At the moment, people are so fearful of getting it wrong, saying the wrong thing and making it worse, that those struggling with their mental health often end up even more isolated - that’s the exact opposite of what they need.
Just like ‘regular’ first aiders, mental health first aiders aren’t a substitute for medical professionals. However, in just the same way they have the power to save lives through early and appropriate intervention.
“Mental health first-aiders provide vital links to employee assistance programmes, counselling and self-help information, and their presence sends the important message that it’s OK to talk about mental health at work" https://t.co/jMd0n3vEHv via @TheSun pic.twitter.com/65Cj20Oyw3— MHFA England (@MHFAEngland) October 5, 2018
What will be happening on Monday?
On Monday I’ll be knocking on the door of the PM’s house in Downing Street and delivering the petition to her. Beforehand we’re having an event at Parliament, bringing together business leaders with mental health first aid instructors so that they can understand exactly what’s involved. It’s so crucial the world of business sees the benefits of the campaign - training staff in MHFA is an initial expense, but the time taken off for mental ill health represents the single biggest cost to UK employers and accounts for 16 million hours each year, so it pays itself back in no time.
How do you see this initiative growing and evolving in 2019?
This petition is just the beginning. Now comes the tricky task of actually getting the law changed. We’re going to be working closely with Luciana on the legislation side of things and lobbying MPs for their support. We already have lots of them on side, including Sadiq Khan, Norman Lamb, Nicky Morgan and Caroline Lucas.
What can Happiful readers do, right now, to help Where's Your Head At?
There’s still time to sign the petition!
Very soon, we’ll be creating a template for a letter you can download and send to your local MP. Follow me on Twitter for the most up to date info on the campaign.
Find out more about Happiful's MHFA courses.