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  • Writer's pictureCigdem Sengul

How I decided to become a Mental Health First Aider

This is a non-technical post, but about a topic that I find essential to discuss, especially in tech communities.

I grew up in an environment where mental health problems were taboo, and nobody seemed to experience them. (This has changed recently with, for example, the books of the psychiatrist, Gülseren Budayıcıoğlu turning into best-sellers and one after another into TV series in Turkey.) So, very early on, mental health and the stigma around it fascinated me. I devoured books like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. I've spent many moments reflecting on The Bell Jar by Slyvia Plath.

The more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you. ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

As years passed, mental health has become a subject of my "real" life and not only in literature. I witnessed a colleague slowly sink into an alternative reality; another close friend had a period of panic attacks. As a teacher, I have found out, sometimes too late, how some of my students fought with depression. I felt painfully inadequate and helpless in all of these situations; I scolded myself for being blind and deaf to miss some of the early struggles, and at the same time, felt unqualified to help. Deep down, I knew I was petrified of saying or doing the wrong thing. I made excuses: “I don't want to be invasive, I don't want to say the wrong thing”.

However, that excuse of not having the right language to engage in mental health conversations started to feel stale, especially during the pandemic, when people are isolated. I decided it's time to be more proactive and took an Adult Mental Health First Aider course at my university.

In any first aid course, you learn an action plan to help a person. In Mental Health First Aid, the course of action is ALGEE.

  • Approach the person, assess with any crisis

  • Listen and communicate non-judgmentally

  • Give support and information

  • Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help

  • Encourage other supports

It feels simple, but it is powerful; and like a mantra, it helps me pause and reflect before acting.

The course also made me realise mental health is a continuum in two axes, ranging from good mental health to poor mental health and from having no diagnosis to having a diagnosis of a severe mental illness. We all exist somewhere along these axes, and we can also move around them. Understanding this fluidity made me feel ready to engage in mental health conversations. We can do all our part, and there are several helpful resources on the web to start taking better care of ourselves and each other.

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