In this latest 60-second interview, Mental Health First Aid England’s legal counsel William Goh talks to The Lawyer about supporting colleagues who are experiencing a mental health problem, and the need for creating an open culture where employees feel safe and comfortable to discuss mental health challenges.

Due to the nature of the content discussed below, if this is triggering for you or if someone you know needs support or is in crisis, please contact Samaritans on 116 123 or Samaritans is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

William Goh

What is your advice on approaching and offering support to colleague that might be struggling?

For me personally, I’ve found that a good starting point is just being open and willing to have that interaction with a colleague. I go to work with the appreciation that I might come across a colleague going through a mental health crisis or otherwise struggling. If I am concerned about someone, I approach them, initiate a conversation about how they are feeling, especially if they do not tell me themselves, whilst always respecting their privacy and confidentiality. It may be that they do not want to talk to me and I need to accept that, but I would reassure them that they are not alone; that I am here, that other members of the team and the Employee Assistance Programme with access to trained counsellors are also available. If they do want to talk , then it is important to genuinely listen to them and communicate in a non-judgemental way – often people in mental distress or experiencing high emotions simply want to be heard, listened to and shown empathy – just be human and compassionate. Giving emotional support including recognising and accepting how they feel is important, as well as signposting and encouraging them to get appropriate professional support such as seeing their GP or access to community groups.

As a Mental Health First Aider, I’ve found that it is also important to maintain appropriate boundaries so I can keep myself safe and well because otherwise, I will not be in any position to help anyone else.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 50 according to the NHS. What can we as a society do to help change this?

This is a subject close to my heart. It saddens me that men in the UK aged 20 to 49 (of which I am one) are more likely to die from suicide than any other cause of death and compared to women, men are three times as likely to die from suicide. We, as a society can help change this by making it as easy as possible for men to access effective mental health support and treatment when they need it. This is a major challenge as our wonderful NHS can only do so much, and there is an ever-increasing pressure and demand on community mental health and support services which can hinder easy access.

In the workplace, I think fundamentally we need to see greater progress towards mental health first aid becoming mandatory in the same way physical first aid is and to develop an open culture where it is safe, and men feel comfortable to talk about how they are feeling without fear of shame, guilt or embarrassment. For me this must start from the top, with a strong, demonstrable commitment from the executive leadership team. Imagine CEOs and other senior managers giving personal testimonies via initiatives, such as mental health awareness days, of their own mental health struggles and role modelling the culture change I’m sure most want to see; this can encourage men to come forward, engage and be part of a new culture where everyone can comfortably talk about how they feel.

What sources of support are available for those experiencing mental health problems and as well as those trying to support them? 

Sometimes it is hard to know where to find the appropriate sources of advice and support. In most workplaces, there should be a certified Mental Health First Aider. Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no legal requirement to have an appointed Mental Health First Aider in the workplace – something MHFA England continues to look to change through positive campaigning and other means. But, if you have access to and can speak to one, they would be able to identify, understand and help someone who may be experiencing a mental health issue.

The role of a Mental Health First Aider is to act as a point of contact and reassurance for a person who may be experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress i.e., they are not therapists or counsellors and cannot diagnose mental health conditions or provide ongoing support.

Other professional sources of support available include your GP, pharmacists, counsellors and psychological therapists, but also family members and friends, community support groups, local church support groups etc.

If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would you choose?

It would have to be my dad. November (as well as his birthday in March and Fathers’ day) marks a particularly sad time for me as it is the second anniversary of his passing. I miss him dearly, especially his cheeky and easy-going nature.

Everyone grieves differently and for me I’m thankful that I got to spend quality time with dad when he was with us, and I celebrate his influence and impact on my life. He was supportive of everything I did, and I know he loved me. As a Christian, I believe that I will see dad again one day in Heaven but in the meantime, I miss him and feel his absence.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of William Goh. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MHFA England CIC.