“I’d like to think we can come back from this…”

Neil Carter is a qualified Mental Health First Aid instructor for MHFA England and runs his own consultancy, NDC Training, specialists in Mental Health First Aid, Manual Handling and Leadership training. The Tees Online caught up with Neil at the start of the current lockdown to see how it was affecting his business.

Can you tell us a little about your vocational journey and how you ended up delivering mental health first aid training?
I became a Mental Health First Aider back in 2010. I was at the steelworks in Redcar when the threat of closure was looming. The management at the time was looking to put something in place to look after the mental health of the workforce. Mental Health First Aid was an initiative that came over from Australia in 2007. They looked into it and decided to train some people up, especially those who worked across the site and could potentially spot problems in people and pick-up on signs and triggers if the mental health of those working there was affected.
I was a Shift Coordinator at the time looking after a team of guys so one of the people they chose was me. They explained what the course involved and how it would give me the confidence to talk about mental health. As blokes, the cliché is that men don’t talk so it would help me to talk about, help others to talk and intervene should it be needed.

In terms of a working environment, a steelwork would be the quintessential ‘blokey’ environment; a place full of big strong men, but throw in the risk of closure into the mix, it was clearly something that would be needed.
Yeah, it was. Once I got the qualification though, the course really gave me the confidence, and the tools, to be able to stand up in front of these guys and look at different options and different routes so you could signpost them to different services and offer them some help and support, once you’d had those discussions with them.
After that, because I had my PTLLS Teaching qualification, I was asked if I’d like to become an instructor so I could actually deliver the course. There was some funding to cover it, with the object to deliver more training in-house to more of the workforce. I jumped at it. I went down to Leeds over several weeks and I eventually qualified, through Mental Health First Aid England, to teach others.
Sadly, the site was mothballed in 2010/11, but I, along with around 400-500 people kept their job for the time being. Soon after, SSI came in, so I put my MHFA on hold while we transitioned into the new regime.
In 2015, the company went into liquidation and along with thousands of others around the North East, I found myself redundant with a wife, three kids and a mortgage. With few options on the table, I looked at going self-employed. There were some grants available to help set up. I’d become very passionate about mental health and the North East, where I’m from. I was aware of some of the issues we have in the area and wanted to deliver training on topics I’m qualified for. Yes, I wanted to make a career for myself to pay the bills, but I also wanted to make a difference in the region.

In the four to five years you’ve been doing it now, have you noticed a difference in the attitudes of the attendees to mental health over time?
I think the main difference now is that people are wanting to come on the course, rather than being told to come on the course. They do a little bit of unofficial homework before they arrive, finding out about the course and they are wanting to make a difference where they live and work. They want to be armed, they want to be tooled up and aware of changing the stigma around mental health. In general, I think people are nice and they want to help each other. They want to come and educate themselves and ask the question “What is mental health?”

You deliver the MHFA course all over the country, do you notice any differences in the attitudes of the attendees in Teesside as opposed to other places in the UK?
I think generally issues are the same all around the country. Financial problems cause mental ill-health, relationship issues cause mental ill-health. It depends on where and when you are in terms of those issues, but generally, people are the same. That said, I do think Teesside is a very unique place. I’ll always bang the drum for the North East and the passion we have does show through when I’m delivering the training. People are open and honest, they do want to make a difference and are proud of where they are,

Looking back to your time as this ‘manly’ steelworker, knowing what you know now and the people you’ve met since then, what was your attitude to mental health then?
Probably similar to most people. It was seen as a weakness. If someone said they were struggling with their mental health, it was seen as they couldn’t or wouldn’t want to work. It was seen as a reason, an excuse not to do something. I know it sounds brutal, but that was the culture back then. You compared yourself to others. “How can that stress you out, when it hasn’t stressed me out?” “How can you be depressed? You’ve just got a good wage.” Looking back, it’s that age-old question: “What have you got to be depressed about?” Prior to my training in 2010, I was very sceptical about it. How could I help someone, who might be struggling, after just two days of training? How wrong I was!

Was there a point that you can recall, where you went from that mindset to where you are now?
If I’m honest, it was the challenges I’ve had in my lifetime. I’ve experienced a lot of loss. I’ve lost some big, key, key players in my lifetime. Going back to 2014 was also a big turning point. My son was diagnosed with a heart-defect which made me re-evaluate life. I think, as any who’s had a child with a serious health problem, it does put things into perspective.

Has what you’ve learned in terms of mental health, changed how you talk to your children about it?
Absolutely. All three of them really, really bang on their own drum in terms of mental health awareness. My wife works in the NHS so we’re all aware of the importance of what’s going on. I’ve had conversations with each of them and let them know that, as parents, we’re there for them, ready to help and support, no matter what.
It’s also armed me and given me the tools to look for the signs and the opportunities for early intervention if needed. Because of what I know, you can see little changes in character and see when things aren’t right. I also know how to approach them, rather than bounding in with the “What’s the matter with ya?” kind of attitude. It’s opened the gates for my kids to talk about mental health issues.

As a self-employed businessman, how are you coping with the pandemic?
I think I’ll be a happier man next week when my support payment comes through. It has been a struggle if I’m completely honest, with no income since March. As soon as the guidance came through that you can’t bring groups together, that was me sunk basically. Training groups of people, most of whom are strangers, is my business. I’d spent four years building the business, I made a good reputation for myself and what I do, I had lots of bookings and had diversified into working with the offshore industry. I had a healthy January, February and March and then the rug was pulled from under my feet, as it was for so many other people.

As a small business owner, are you optimistic about the government’s support for this self-employed sector?
It was something, let’s just say that. Ask me again when the money hits my bank account and let’s see how it goes. It did hit me drastically, if I’m honest. I had some good work lined up so this was nowhere near enough, but it’s something. It’s something.

Is social distancing going to be an issue, given how the mental health first aid training that you provide takes place?
I think it is going to be a problem, but one that we can overcome. Class numbers are probably going to have to be reduced from the typical 16-20 to around 8-10 people. We are also looking at putting some of the training online. I’ve been in touch with Mental Health First Aid England, who licence the product, have put some courses together that are ‘virtual’ so I can still deliver the 4-hour Awareness course and the 3-hour refresher for those people who have already completed it. Hopefully, by the end of May 2020, the 2-day MHFA course will also be online, so instead of sitting in a classroom, we can deliver that digitally. The course materials will be sent out to the delegates for them to work through, but everything else will be online.

Do you think, longer-term, that’s going to be the future of MHFA training, or do you see normality returning in how you deliver your training?
I’d like to think we’ll get back to normal. Mental health training is very, very interactive. A lot of things are shared in the room, which is a safer space, rather than being along in front of a computer screen, and you get an awful lot from others in the room. Whilst it’s great that we will be able to deliver training in the meantime, I hope we can get back to being in a classroom together.

Are you optimistic about the future?
I’d like to think so. I’d like to think we can come back from this. I personally think there’s going to be massive need for education around mental health when all of this is over. There are a lot of people, a lot of key workers especially, who will be going through the motions just to get through but dealing with trauma. At some point, what they’ve gone through, it’s going to hit them hard. We need people to spot those signs and signpost

Have you got any advice for anyone who might be struggling?
I’m actually doing a webinar for the North East Chamber of Commerce about looking after your mental health. I think, especially in lockdown, the focus has been on your physical health, getting your hour’s exercise, but what about exercising your mind? People don’t associate physical health and mental health as being intrinsically linked, but they are. Get out and be more mindful when you’re walking. I’ve lived in Hemlington for twenty-seven years but it’s only in recent weeks that I’ve actually taken the time to walk around the lake. You know, it’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve found myself taking pictures of swans on a daily. Some people have a lockdown diary, I have a lockdown swan gallery!

Finally… Parmo? Classic or additional toppings?
You’re not going to like this. I might be the only person in Teesside who doesn’t like parmos. I don’t like bechamel sauce. I don’t like melted cheese. My ‘parmo’ is a dry pork escalope!