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The benefits of mental health first aid training for student nurses



Mental health nursing academics Emma Dillon and Francis Beckett explain why mental health first aid should be applied more in nurse education.

Mental health nursing academics Emma Dillon and Francis Beckett explain why mental health first aid should be applied more in nurse education.

The role of the registered nurse continually develops in line with the public’s changing needs and new healthcare developments1.

Nurturing the wellbeing and resilience of nurses has been identified as critical to this, with studies highlighting that both the educational environment and practice settings are often a source of stress for nursing students and do not foster a sense of belonging2.

Consequently, the well-being of students can be hindered. Evidence also indicates that student nurses who feel they have positive well-being and resilience tend to embed into their graduate roles with less stress3. This in turn results in personal and organisational well-being and success.

At the University of Northampton, we have duty to promote positive wellbeing for staff and students. Our BSc mental health nursing team was keen to explore how wellbeing could be explicitly threaded into the nursing curriculum using an evidence-based programme. Another important consideration was how to engage and support nursing academics and other university staff and partners in the wellbeing themes to promote a whole community approach and culture shift.

In 2017, the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England report found that wellbeing can have a profound impact on individual and community success. The same year, we began our project to train all BSc nursing students across all four field of nursing. Our aim was to enhance psychological safety and to promote mental health skill acquisitions, and we worked with MHFA England to train 14 MHFA instructors to do so.

Of the 450 students who completed the two-day course so far and then filled out a survey, 98% reported feeling confident in speaking about mental health with their peers, while 90% felt more confident in talking about their own mental health and wellbeing.

Students gave various examples of how they used the skills developed on the course, such as:

  • “I feel able to ask my mates how they are feeling”
  • “I feel able to confidently signpost people to the appropriate services”
  • “I have been able to help patients, carers and other nurses to talk more openly about MH”

Students and staff reported using their MHFA skills in a range of situations from supporting colleagues having a challenging time in their clinical placements, through to intervention, support and access to specialist services for people who are in significant crises. These applications have happened in the work, social or private lives of students and staff.

Mental health first aiders commonly report that people are much more willing to open up about their inner world to them and feel trust in doing so. First aiders confidently engage in mental health in the general discourse of their lives, which appears to deliver credibility and promotes the safety required for people to seek the support they need, when in times gone by, they would perhaps have suffered in silence.

Emma Dillon is a senior lecturer in BSc Mental Health Nursing and the curriculum enhancement lead for MHFA University of Northampton. 

Francis Beckett is a course leader for mental health nursing at Solent University.

  1. Sergeant J and Laws-Chapman C (2012) Creating a positive workplace culture. Nursing management 2012 18, 9, 14-19.
  2. Crombie.A, Brindley.J, Harris.D, Marks-Maran.D and Thompson.T.M (2013) Factors that enhance rates of completion: What makes nurses stay?  Nurse Education Today 33,1282-1287.
  3. Sun.T, Zhao.W, Yang.L and Fan.Li (2011) The impact of psychological capital on job embeddedness and job performance among nurses: a structural equation approach. Journal of Advanced Nusing.68 (1), 69-79.