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Mental health first aid

A global approach to mental health

Mental health has until recently been a taboo subject. Freshfields’ global mental health first aid (MHFA) programme has been striving to increase knowledge and understanding of mental health across their global network, while at the same time reducing stigma in the firm and the wider community.

Why we began

Although we had a number of support mechanisms and resources in place and were good at responding to a crisis, we wanted to be more proactive in spotting the signs of someone struggling, focus on prevention and develop a consistent approach across our global network.

Now we strive to understand what mental health means to us as a firm and how to recognise when someone is in distress, better equipping us to respond and support those experiencing challenges to the professional help they may need.

Our global approach to mental wellbeing includes: self-care; looking after others (colleagues and teams); equipping everybody to better spot the signs of mental distress; and breaking down stigma.

Our approach

The global mental health first aid (MHFA) programme trains ‘mental health first aiders’ to spot the signs of mental distress, then respond and provide appropriate support. Everyone undergoing MHFA training is invited to join the global mental health support team, which meets both as a whole and (now we have over 330 trained across the firm) also regionally, to share mental health and wellbeing experiences and ideas.

To properly embed our proactive approach, those trained are encouraged to discuss mental health issues with teams and boost visibility, as well as running regular drop-in sessions and panel events. All are provided with opportunities to refresh MHFA skills.

The programme also cuts across business function, seniority and region, including an aim to train all senior partners and directors in our London office as well as introducing a bespoke course based on MHFA principles that is being delivered in seven languages across our continental Europe offices.

The impact  

We began in 2017 with a pilot of 16 mental health first aiders, then expanded the programme with an ambitious aim to train one in 25 of our worldwide staff. We have already exceeded this target, with more than 260 mental health first aiders across our global network.

But numbers cannot tell the whole story: the training has been extremely well received, increasing awareness around mental health, reducing stigma as well as building valuable skills that have benefitted our people in the workplace, as well as their family, friends and the broader community.

Martin Hills, Global Head of Learning and Development, hashelped embed the learning in Freshfields’ Asia offices. ‘I think this targeted approach has made a real difference,’ he says. ‘We have really made mental health central to our employee wellbeing programme and the visibility of mental health first aiders across the firm is helping to break down the stigma in a region where, locally, it is probably harder to come out to friends and family if you are struggling with your mental health, than at work.’

Freshfields Partner Victoria Hills, the London office’s partner sponsor for mental health and wellbeing activities, says: ‘Our mental health and wellbeing initiatives have enabled me to identify aspects of my work and home life that are key to my wellbeing and given me practical ways to maintain a sense of balance and perspective. I now have the confidence to be open and supportive to others at all levels who may be struggling or seeking to find their own balance.’

And finally Global Diversity and Inclusion Senior Manager Kristina Adey-Davies, an accredited mental health first aid trainer who leads the global programme, says: ‘Since we introduced the pilot in 2017, I could never have imagined the level of engagement from our people to get involved and help us drive this across the firm, supporting at an individual level as well as at a team level and helping to make mental health part of everyday conversations.’

Freshfields commitment to mental health and wellbeing continues to be a priority across the firm. We, like many others, are on a journey and we will continue to drive this conversation forward and evolve our approaches.