Mental Health First Aid: Being a Port in the Storm

By Vanessa Hough

A few years ago, I worked in the student residences of a public university in the US. I was a Resident Advisor. I was the go-to person for between 35-50 resident students on my floor from my second to sixth year of study. It was a great job and we were given very thorough training in the weeks leading up to semester one of each academic year before students moved into the residences. At that time, we were taught to deal with circumstances like fire, roommate disputes, body fluids, first aid for injuries and suicide.

Whenever we would role play the suicide scenario, everyone’s anxiety levels would go up. Nobody ever wanted to be confronted with this issue, but we had to prepare for it. We talked about behavioural changes to watch for as well as changes in communication. Today, we would call it Mental Health First Aid training.

So here’s the thing, all manner of occupations train in Basic First Aid and CPR. Only a few specific occupations like Doctors and Mental Health Professionals, even Police and Paramedics are given Mental Health First Aid training. The broader population is being exposed more and more to mental health issues on a significant scale, and people who are dealing with varying degrees of mental health issues are seeking out help in non-traditional ways because of a delay or lack of availability and accessibility to mental healthcare professionals.

My Remedial Massage clients often find their sessions an opportunity to unload their minds and hearts. While I am not a psychologist and have never claimed to be, I have had a lot of training in active listening. My clients know that I am a “captive audience” for an hour or so and feel safe confiding in me. For some, it takes a while to open up and others let the flood gates go. To be honest, I am quite comfortable in this role as confidante during our sessions. However, there have been times when the talk is much heavier than the pressure exerted through my elbows.

I have listened to many a heavy heart and weighty shoulders. Some of the topics have ranged from relationship splits, abusive situations, parental stress, drug rehabilitation, job loss and just last year, I had a client come to see me just a few days after he attempted suicide.

This young man, mid 20s, was a labourer. He worked long, hard hours, and came to me through his partner several months prior to this attempt. He often spoke of his work-related stress and sometimes relationship woes. More so, he had chronic back pain. He wasn’t sleeping well and was often grumpy when he got to my clinic after a full day of work. I pride myself on having my clients laugh during treatment. It really is good medicine for the soul and a great ab workout, and he did laugh. There had only been a short break between our weekly sessions, but he had cancelled the week before due to work. Then a message came to me from his partner begging me to see him. She said he just got home from seeing the doctor at the hospital after attempting suicide. I was overwhelmed in that moment, to say the least. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of sadness at this news; overwhelmed by the guilt that I didn’t see this coming; overwhelmed by the fear of assuming I was going to be seen as his “counsellor”.

How is it I was the first person called to help him, and not the psychologist or counsellor he had been referred to? His partner sent multiple messages and rang several times insisting that he needed to see me as he was physically in pain. I knew I had to help, but I also had to establish some parameters for his treatment.

I insisted that he see a Mental Health professional before seeing me. After he had a few sessions with his counsellor, he came for a massage. From the time of his suicide attempt to his massage session was one week. I was nervous. So was he. Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to talk about what happened. He just said that his whole body hurt and would love nothing more than one of my usual “pummelling” treatments. In his words, “make me feel every sore spot so I know I am still here”. Whoa! Took everything to choke back a few tears when he said that. At the end of our session that day, I said to him, “I am glad you are still here. This massage wouldn’t have been the same without you.” It got a little chuckle from him. He said it felt good to laugh.

Is it time to add mental health to the first aid kit?

When I look back on this moment, I realise just how much massage therapists are sounding boards for their clients. We don’t just hear about physical aches and pains, we are privileged to the emotional and mental ones, too. So where is the training for this in our education packages at TAFE or massage colleges or university?

Due to a lack of funding in most cases, we are left to seek this kind of training on our own. I know I would have felt better equipped if I had a bit more training in this area. I would have felt better if I had had a resources pack at hand to refer to, not just a list of phone numbers to hotlines. I am not saying those numbers are not valuable, quite the opposite. In that moment, certain communication skills, a way of making sure I could support him and his partner would have been beneficial. Let’s not forget her in this. She is the one who found him after all. Fortunately, Mental Health First Aid is a thing now. Yes, a thing!

With mental health care professionals stretched to the max in the greater metropolitan areas and in dire need of help in bush areas, my colleagues and I need to add this to our First Aid tool kit. There are a lot of courses available around the country and even some online courses. I took a look at a few options, including those offered through Mental Health First Aid Australia. As they say on their home page, “You don’t have to be a doctor. You don’t have to be a psychologist. Anyone can do Mental Health First Aid by signing up.” We will not be a replacement for these professionals, but we will be able to be a port in the storm.

Editor’s note: AMT members can earn CEUs from doing a Mental Health First Aid course. If you’re planning to undertake Mental Health First Aid training, contact AMT Head Office with the course details to see if it fits AMT’s criteria.


Crisis Help:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (people aged 5-25)

Information on mental health:


Black Dog Institute

SANE Australia

Mental Health in Multicultural Australia

About the Author

Vanessa Hough owns and operates Purple Sister Massage and Wollongong Frozen Shoulder Clinic in Wollongong, NSW and is the AMT Illawarra Branch Chairperson. She has taken a special interest into chronic pain as it relates to mental health in recent months; “Where chronic pain is involved, the mind and body cannot be treated separately but rather the treatment plan must involve a combination of efforts to bring about a positive change for the client”, according to Vanessa.

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  1. Thank You Vanessa. What a wonderfully heartfull message. I have done some Mental health first aid training with Red Cross as a Disaster and Emergency Volunteer

  2. Michelle Vassallo
    13/09/2018 - 12:59 pm

    Well done Vanessa for getting this written down so that everyone of us can understand that there may be some stage during our professional lives that we will be called into service as you were in this situation. Thank you for this timely reminder, our world and our clients deserve the best and familiarizing ourselves with some training in this department will certainly help with that.

  3. There are Mental Health First Aid courses and Suicide Prevention training that can be taken. Some are freely offered having been funded by non for profit groups such as SPAN or Wesley LifeForce. They are comprehensive and well presented by qualified Mental Health instructors often the very people that are at the coal face of many a mental health issues.
    I highly recommend them.

    We as massage (body health) therapists often become mental health therapist by default. I think we should take a proactive stance by understanding mental health a bit more and how important our roll can be just by listening and offering touch.
    Personally, I believe Dip RMT should cover more counselling aspects. Because let’s face it, that’s what we become to many of our client.

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