Mental health remains a taboo topic in our society.

Doing nothing is not an option

First aid courses

Your friend has gone quiet. In fact, she hasn’t said anything much for a while now. What’s wrong? What can you do? Mental health first aid is not a matter of course. The Pro Mente Sana foun­da­tion and the Beis­heim Stif­tung have dedi­ca­ted them­sel­ves to this taboo topic with the ensa project. 

The number of coro­na­vi­rus cases is doubling almost every week. With the dark winter months drawing in and the government’s advice to avoid cont­act with others where­ver possi­ble, loneli­ness is beco­ming wide­spread. And with loneli­ness, feelings of fear and anxiety often grow, too. Fear of losing one’s liveli­hood, fear of coro­na­vi­rus – or fear of losing ever­y­thing. The ensa project for mental health first aid, run by the Beis­heim Stif­tung (chari­ta­ble foun­da­tion) and Pro Mente Sana (funding partner/project owner), tack­les this issue. 

There was some­thing in the air

[TEXT] In autumn 2017, a jour­na­list cont­ac­ted Roger Staub, direc­tor of Pro Mente Sana, and asked him what he thought about mental health first aid (MHFA). At almost exactly the same time, Patri­zia Rezzoli, direc­tor of the Beis­heim Stif­tung, joined the mental health first aid project via MHFA Canada. Both were imme­dia­tely convin­ced that the programme was exactly what was needed. ‘Mental health issues remain taboo in our society,’ stres­ses Staub. ‘In our meri­to­cra­tic culture, people don’t talk about things being too much, about not wanting to carry on, not being able to carry on, or about needing help.’ The fear of expe­ri­en­cing discri­mi­na­tion or losing your job is too great. 

Tack­ling the taboo

We’ve all expe­ri­en­ced having a colle­ague, friend or family member with­draw. But how can we respond? There are lots of life­guar­ding and first aid cour­ses on offer in Switz­er­land, but not many provi­ding mental health support. Because mental health issues are still taboo, we often don’t know how to talk to those affec­ted, reflects Patri­zia Rezzoli. ‘When we do nothing, symptoms often get worse,’ adds Roger Staub. ‘Those affec­ted only seek help when things have reached brea­king point – by which time therapy is often diffi­cult, costly and time-consum­ing.’ Most people try and conceal their issues at work so that no-one noti­ces what is going on. The two chari­ties are trying to combat this by acqui­ring a Swiss licence for the MHFA programme. Staub is convin­ced that ‘being able to offer first aid is important for our coexis­tence. A society full of first aiders would be a better world for us all.’ But there is a long way to go until then. Pro Mente Sana still encoun­ters the taboo around mental health: ‘Without the strong support of the Beis­heim Stif­tung as a project part­ner, we would never have got this project off the ground,’ asserts Staub. ‘We’ve been fight­ing from the get-go, because no-one wants to donate to support our clientele – or not yet.’

Taking on the project together

[TEXT] ‘After a trip to visit MHFA Holland toge­ther, we got to work,’ recounts Patri­zia Rezzoli. ‘We needed a name that was easy to prono­unce in German, French, Italian and English. The English abbre­via­tion MHFA wasn’t going to work in Switz­er­land. We needed a word that didn’t have any nega­tive conno­ta­ti­ons,’ says Roger Staub. ‘Which is how we arri­ved at ensa.’ Rezzoli adds: ‘The word comes from an indi­ge­nous Austra­lian language and means “answer”. The logo is a styli­sed depic­tion of the medi­cinal flower arnica.’ The project laun­ched its pilot phase in 2019. 

Setting up a first aid course

Since the begin­ning of 2020, Pro Mente Sana has been rolling out the cour­ses and expan­ding them across Switz­er­land. ‘We are respon­si­ble for the opera­tio­nal imple­men­ta­tion of the project,’ explains Roger Staub. ‘The Beis­heim Stif­tung is a strong, dedi­ca­ted part­ner at our side and supports us not only finan­ci­ally but also in drawing up busi­ness plans, and with legal issues and commu­ni­ca­ti­ons.’ Both chari­ties contri­bute their own speci­fic exper­tise. Pro Mente Sana has alre­ady trai­ned 150 instruc­tors, who offer and conduct ensa cour­ses for the gene­ral public. Anyone who is inte­res­ted can become a mental health first aider. Around 1,500 people have alre­ady atten­ded the course. During lock­down, in-person cour­ses could no longer take place, so Pro Mente Sana adapted its approach. ‘Pro Mente Sana deve­lo­ped and rolled out an online version of the first aid course very quickly,’ says Patri­zia Rezzoli. ‘The ensa webi­nar isn’t just a “lite” version of the face-to-face ensa course.’ In future, the in-person cour­ses and the webi­nars will conti­nue to be offe­red as two equi­va­lent opti­ons. ‘Our next aim,’ adds Staub, ‘is to enable one percent of the Swiss popu­la­tion to enact the “ROGER” prin­ci­ple.’ ROGER stands for reac­ting, open and unbi­a­sed listening and commu­ni­ca­tion, gene­ral support and infor­ma­tion, encou­ra­ging someone to seek profes­sio­nal help, and mobi­li­sing resour­ces. ‘We talk about “first aid” because ROGER is not gene­rally used in emer­gen­cies. The ROGER prin­ci­ple is applied when we notice people close to us whose mental health has dete­rio­ra­ted over time,’ says the Pro Mente Sana director. 

The ensa programme run by Pro Mente Sana laun­ched at the begin­ning of 2020 and trains mental health first aiders.

Perso­nal recommendations

The service is proving successful. The feed­back from first aiders who have under­gone the trai­ning is very posi­tive, and new parti­ci­pants often come to the course via perso­nal recom­men­da­ti­ons. Patri­zia Rezzoli has taken the course hers­elf and is highly enthu­si­a­stic: ‘The course helps you under­stand the topic of mental health and its many facets, teaches you how to talk to people, how to approach the topic appro­pria­tely, and how to refer people to support services and networks.’

Learn more about the Swiss Pro Mente Sana Foun­da­tion and the Prof. Otto Beis­heim Foun­da­tion on

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