Why I became a mental-health first-aider at my research institute

Research group leaders should learn how to recognize if colleagues are experiencing problems at work, says James Turner.
James Turner is a senior group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where he runs the Sex Chromosome Biology Lab.

Search for this author in:

James Turner

James Turner.Credit: Francis Crick Institute

The Francis Crick Institute in London now has around 40 accredited mental-health first aiders. The two-day training course is run by our occupational-health nurse, covering conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and psychosis.

I volunteered because there weren’t yet any scientific group leaders among the first aiders. We should have them at all levels of the organization, and managers should be exemplars. Like anyone else, we experience mental-health problems. I had them in the past, and my experience taught me that things can deteriorate quickly — and that early intervention is key.

I studied psychiatry during my medical degree. We focused on diagnosis and therapy, but there was less emphasis on listening skills.

Course basics

The Crick’s training course teaches you to listen in a non-judgemental way, to pay attention to negative signs and not be afraid of asking difficult questions, such as, “How are you? I’ve noticed you’re not quite yourself.” One point made during the training that isn’t always captured in textbooks is that two people can experience the same mental illness very differently. Another is that recovery is possible, but you have to give it time.

There’s also a strong emphasis on using the right terminology and avoiding inappropriate language. The phrase “committing suicide”, for example, implies that someone has performed a crime. “Completing suicide” or “taking one’s own life” are more appropriate.

The Crick’s mental-health first-aid network started in 2016 when the institute opened. At first, most volunteers were women. It took a while to get men on board, but now the network has equal numbers. Diverse reprentation is important because some mental-health conditions affect men and women differently. For example, in the United Kingdom, three-quarters of people that complete suicide are men, according to the Samaritans’ 2018 Suicide Statistics Report. I work on sex differences as part of my research, and so find that statistic interesting. I hope that by making more men aware of and engaged in these initiatives, we might understand why they’re less likely than women to self-report mental-health issues.

My advice to someone with a mental-health problem is to remember that you are one of many going through this. The World Health Organization notes that one in four people globally will be affected at some point in their lives. But don’t accept it as the norm.

The help we offer is confidential. Our contact details are available on our intranet and on notice boards throughout the building. We are ‘signposters’, there to listen, not to judge, and to refer people to an appropriate service. This could be their own general practitioner, or Health Assured — the Crick’s external-assistance-programme provider. External charity organizations, such as Samaritans, Mind and SANE, offer more sources of support.

The first aiders use a WhatsApp group to communicate and support each other. There is also a group debriefing session every eight weeks, and the Crick offers half-day courses to help individual employees look after their own mental health and to manage stress more effectively.

Workplace culture

Academic science is a fantastic but challenging career choice. Competition for jobs is huge, expectations from scientific journals are high and a scientist’s role is ever-changing. Alongside research, we teach, raise funds and engage with the public and the media. Juggling these responsibilities can be tough.

Some scientists say that stress is part of the job, and wear it like a badge of honour. I want to debunk that myth. Mentoring schemes and health-awareness events, which we have at the Crick can provide scientists with day-to-day support. We senior scientists should also coach trainees on how to cope with the pressures of a research environment. I strongly believe that with great mental health comes great science. We should all get on board with this message.

Nature 563, 433 (2018)

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.