Promoting wellbeing from within the Crick: our mental health first aiders

As part of the Crick’s health and wellbeing strategy, our network of mental health first aiders provides valuable on-call support to all staff, whenever they need to talk. Here, research scientists Jade Williams-Gill and Paul Driscoll share their experience of being the first point of call for colleagues facing tough times.
Paul Driscoll and Jade Williams-Gill

"There's always someone willing to listen."

Jade Williams-Gill is a genetic modification research scientist in the Crick’s Biological Research Facility (BRF). Her role involves the generation of stable mouse embryonic stem cells (mESCs) to be used as mouse models. She also is part of the production team that conduct IVF’s, microinjections, and embryo and sperm cryopreservation. She’s been a mental health first aider for nearly four years.

Many people have struggled with their mental health at some point in their lives, it’s very close to home for most of us. But there’s still a stigma associated with it. Thankfully attitudes are changing and I think being open and encouraging people to talk is a big part of this.

There’s a lot to consider when you’re approached by someone struggling with their mental health, and the training we received was really comprehensive. We covered everything from helping people to feel comfortable and open up, to directing them towards additional support services. I’m now much more aware of potential trigger words and how I give advice, avoiding phrases like ‘you should’. 

We try to be empathetic rather than sympathetic - it’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and helping to alleviate some of the burden they’ve been carrying. It can be easier for people to talk to colleagues because they might have been through the same thing.

Working in science can be stressful at times and it’s been particularly stressful during the pandemic. Many of us have continued to work throughout he this time, including people in the BRF who are responsible for the animals, so our lockdown reality was quite different compared with others at the Crick. 

I worry that not seeing each other as regularly has meant fewer people have been able to seek mental health support. But now we’re back together I want my colleagues to know we’re here and there’s always someone willing to listen. Everyone’s problems are different but they’re all important. There’s literally no problem too small, you might just be having an off day and need of offload. And coming to speak to someone early could help stop that worry from escalating and becoming overwhelming.

For me, knowing that I’ve made someone’s day a little easier and that they’re not alone is hugely rewarding. 

"One good deed deserves another."

Paul Driscoll is a Crick staff scientist, specialising in metabolomics using NMR spectroscopy and mass spectrometry. He works closely with Crick scientists studying various animal models of development and disease to catalogue the small molecules present in different body fluids and tissues. He was first inspired to sign up as a mental health first aider when more men were asked to volunteer.

A number of years ago, I had a couple of bouts of serious mental ill-health. I was experiencing multiple work-related stresses (including involvement in a university spin-out) and after a while it all became too much. When I look back on how I felt then, I wish I had reached out sooner. But there was something in the way – I felt guilty, that I wasn’t coping when I should have been able to, that I was letting people down. This meant the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it all, even to those closest to me. 

Thankfully, when I couldn’t hide my condition any more, I received excellent support at work and at home and was really well cared for. This is one reason why I signed up to be a mental health first aider – one good deed deserves another. My own experience has been a strong motivator for helping others. I feel that it’s possible that I might have more sensitive ‘antennae’ for mental health issues and am more in tune with what distressed colleagues and family might be going through. I might be better attuned to ask a second time whether someone is really feeling ok.

During the mental health first aider training we were confronted with the potential severity of the problems people might be facing. You have to be prepared to ask difficult questions including whether someone intends to harm themselves. As mental health first aiders our job is to be available, to listen without prejudice, and most importantly, to direct the person to additional help. We have to accept that we can’t solve someone’s problems but we can help to ensure they get the right professional support long-term.

I know that science is stressful. It’s a hugely rewarding area to work in but there are also unique pressures to deliver, whether that’s because of deadlines, reviews, publications, funding, etc. Researchers and staff here are striving to produce work of the very highest level. There’s a lot of support out there but some people might need additional help and that’s where mental health first aiders come in.

An aspect of the network that encourages people to access help, is that we operate independently. We don’t report back to people’s line managers or HR, and everything discussed is treated in the strictest of confidence. 

To anyone struggling, and likely because of the pandemic there are more such individuals among us, I would say: tell someone how you are feeling, and that you may need help, no matter how small you think the problem is. 

It would be good if the mantra “It’s ok not to be ok” became a ‘new normal’. 

My experience, and those of many of us who have experienced poor mental health, is that there is an abundance of support out there; don’t be afraid to confide in someone and ‘things will always get better’. 

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