Dr Claire Kelly is the Manager of Research and Evaluation at MHFA Australia. Claire has been involved with MHFA since 2003, when she first became an instructor while completing her Doctorate at the Centre for Mental Health Research at the Australian National University in Canberra, where the program was first developed. Prior to her current position, Claire worked on the MHFA Guidelines used to inform MHFA courses. 

Claire’s PhD thesis was written on the mental health literacy of Australian adolescents. Her main passion is the mental health of young people and minimising the impacts that mental health problems can have on development, educational outcomes and long-term functioning. 

Claire has suffered episodes of depression and anxiety since adolescence, which has been a driver for this work.

Because there’s a world of difference between mental health and mental illness. Can you talk about that for a moment? What is mental health

  • It’s like health it’s on a continuum
  • You can  have good health or poor health
  • You can have an illness and it can be managed and have good health

Some people come out of a mental illness can have high levels of compassion and empathy 

Claire talks about the Idea of Japanese pottery art called Kintsugi where cracks are filled with gold. 

One in four young people between the ages of 15 and 25 will develop a mental health disorder in a 12 month period

What are some of the barriers to help seeking?

Help seeking is low across all ages, 

Young people are less likely to seek help

Low levels of stigma towards others but higher self-stigma, feelings of I can deal with it myself. 

It’s hard to know what are normal changes, this can be tricky for people to recognise.

Changes during adolescence

  • Changes in  focus and mood
  • Physical changes over time
  • Body
  • Behaviour

Like any other sickness, mental health problems result in missed days, work left undone and wasted opportunities. 

What are some of the additional impacts of not getting treatment early?

  • Educational outcomes getting the grades they want at school that they are capable of
  • Impacts the study they may like to do later on
  • Impacts on physical development 
  • Social development 
  • Making friends 
  • Relationships 
  • Withdrawn 

Loneliness can be a factor, as you withdraw due to work mental health, you may feel more and more lonely and find it more difficult to reach out. 

The MHFA course discusses some of the potential red flags/ things to look out for when someone may be struggling with their mental health, strategies for managing the initial support of friends, family and colleagues safely, and information on obtaining immediate assistance if necessary.

Can you talk a little bit about what somebody walking out of the standard and youth 14 hour class is really trained or educated to do specifically?

What’s it not

  • Doesn’t teach counselling skills
  • Doesn’t teach you to diagnose 

It gives you some education around the clusters of symptoms you may notice and helps you potentially identify if someone is in crisis. 

‘’If you’ve seen major changes (negative changes) in someone’s feelings, thinking and behaviour.If it appears to be having an impact on their ability to function, enjoy relationships study etc and it’s lasted more than a couple of weeks they need help. ‘’ 

Often people are scared they’ll make things worse or being nosey.It’s ok to have these conversations,

Mental Health First Aid, helps you have a plan in place and connect with someone. It’s different to being a professional on the treatment side of things  

Tips for doing the course

Everyone should attend a mental health first aid course

Just like everyone should attend a physical first aid course. 

It’s a different set of skills than what’s delivered in the curriculum, so consider doing a course.

If you have an interest in mental health, then consider becoming an instructor. 

The main courses 12-14 hrs

Standard mental health first aid

Youth mental health first aid

Older persons mental health first aid

Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders mental health first aid

Despite young people being in such need, they are also the group least likely to seek help for mental health concerns. One of the newest courses is the teenMHFA course, unlike the other courses it’s is peer looking out for peers….  could you talk about the research currently underway?  

Young people were more likely to go to their peer to seek help and support. 

There’s lots of research that says lots of young people are providing lots of inappropriate support to each other already. Potentially a risk to their own mental health and can be unhelpful to the person needing the help. The courses cover the minimum amount you’d want young people to know.

Cover suicides and other traditionally difficult topics. 

If we can’t talk about suicide then it means they can’t which means if they’re having thoughts of suicide they cant talk to anyone. 

The course encouraged them to get an adult to help.

Tips for helping someone who doesn’t want help?

  • It may be that you’re not the right person
  • You can encourage them to talk to someone else. 
  • They care too much about you and want to hold /save face
  • Culture and gender differences. 

You may have to use language that indicates you may not be a good fit.

Using inclusive language

Eg you may be asking someone about the support they have and say ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ 

If she’s same-sex attracted then she may feel like it’s not ok to talk to you about it. 

Makes it easier to start the conversation if you use inclusive language. 

Some young people hold myths about what help may look like. 

Feeling like I have to be stronger than other people

They may have incorrect ideas of what help looks like. May think it’s acute and you may need to be hospitalised or not part of the community. 

May need to do some myth-busting 

What treatment looks like may have come from tv and movies

Mental health first aid for tertiary students

Could you tell me more about the creation of Mental health first aid for tertiary students, what sparked this course and how is it different to the standard and youth MHFA.

Tertiary students mhfa course  

  • How to look out for your peers
  • Some of the youth content and peer to peer support. 

Do people report learning any tools of techniques that they can apply to themselves to improve their own mental health?

Research has shown improves the mental health of the participants too.

How do you take care of your own mental health?

It needs to be something you incorporate it into your life and practice. 

Could be nipping a problem in the bud early so it doesn’t become a problem

  • Getting exercise
  • Connect and talk with people

Tips for professionals

  • Using supervision and group supervision Helps them remain in their career 
  • Manage burn out
  • Talk to people
  • Take time off when needed

Do you think mental health problems are getting worse?

Claire personally thinks yes.

The research is hard to gather around this topic.

Evidence is limited 

Anxiety, in particular, is getting more and more common.

Family structures changed, social media, bullying on social media.

The impact of social media looking at curated lives. 

Impact of diet and exercise

  • A sedentary lifestyle can be problematic
  • Poor quality food
  • Good evidence for the   diet 

On a more personal note, how have you managed to balance the work you find so valuable the emotional toll of being so immersed in data, statistics and stories of mental distress of others? Does this have an impact on you? How do you take care of yourself?

Claires self-care tips

Practice what I preach

It’s ok to ask for help.

Excersie 45 min a day

Read and watch things that I enjoy

To find out more about mental health first aid check out the MHFA website






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