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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Blackburn

Basic mental health first aid

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Some simple yet important hacks for maintaining balance in difficult times.

Mental Health first aid

Note: This is a basic primer for untrained individuals and does not constitute a course or training, only a rudimentary guideline for dealing with mental and emotional illness or distress. For an in-depth course regarding Mental Health First Aid, check your local providers such as St. John Ambulance ( and Mental Health First Aid Canada (


How to Prepare for Difficulty?

Life has a way of not going as planned. On the positive side, this can look like the fact that the vast majority of what we worry about will never come true, and if it does, it won’t look like anything we imagined. Think about where you were five years ago and the things you used to worry about. How did you imagine your life would be now? Did any of that happen? If it did, was it anything like you’d pictured it? For the majority of us, life goes in a separate direction from what we anticipate. The core lesson in this is that worry is not always a useful tool for preparation. It’s an energy leak which can steal our present joy by selling us the illusion of future security.

On the other hand, life will eventually present a problem, challenge, or difficulty that we couldn’t anticipate. These situations and events can blindside us, leave us reeling, overwhelmed, and sometimes incapacitated. They can also do all of this to someone close to us, such as a friend or family member. When this occurs to someone we care about, how we react to the situation can dramatically affect the outcome of the challenge or difficulty.

When it comes to these situations, it is best to put worry aside, because we can’t plan for if, or when, they will happen. What we can do, however, is focus on gaining tools and strategies to meet these challenges skillfully when they arise.

Mental Health First Aid was originally developed by researchers in Australia. It proposes a useful acronym, ALGEE, as a guide. When utilizing the strategies below, remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Use what seems appropriate for the situation.

ALGEE the mental health first aid acronym to keep in your back pocket:

A-- Assess the Risk

● What level of distress is the person in?

● Is this person in immediate danger?

● Is this person suicidal?

● Is their mood markedly different from usual?

● Has something impactful or traumatizing happened in their life recently?

● Are they emotional or dissociated?

L-- Listen Non-Judgmentally

● Ask questions and rephrase/mirror their response to show empathy and understanding.

● Use phrases such as “I hear you” rather than “I get it” or “I understand”.

● Validate their experience.

● On the other hand, take extra care not to invalidate their experience.

● Try not to interrupt.

● Use open, non-threatening body language.

● Imagine yourself in their shoes, with their thoughts in your head.

G -- Give Reassurance and Information

● If you are able, share hope and reassurance.

● If you know any mental health facts that seem useful, share them with the individual.

● Find and share the mental health resources available on this site and any other you may think appropriate, such as

E: Encourage appropriate professional help

● Refer the individual to appropriate professional mental health services.

● There are many free resources available in Canada. See below for more information.

● It is important for individuals to seek and receive professional help before matters get worse. Don’t wait; encourage the individual to get help and, if possible, support them in making a plan to do so.

E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies

● Help the individual to identify their support network.

● Consider community resources.

● Provide support in developing a personalized emotional and physical self-care plan.


Remember that if you find yourself in the role of caregiver or emotional support for someone in distress, you are important too. You have physical and emotional needs that may be impacted by supporting another individual. A tired and overwhelmed helper can end up hurting more than they help. Prioritize your own boundaries and self-care, and only give the level of support you feel comfortable in offering. When in any doubt, refer the individual to professional services.

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