Empowering Canadians: The Role of Mental Health First Aid


Layla Team

February 7, 2024

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a rapidly growing program becoming a valuable offering to many professionals and organizations across Canada. But what exactly does MHFA entail? 

Traditionally ‘first aid’ training equips us with the skills to offer immediate assistance to keep an injured person safe until help arrives. MHFA extends this same concept to mental health, providing safe and effective support to an individual experiencing emotional distress until professional help is available or the crisis is resolved.  

This program, originating in Australia and now offered in several different countries, is adaptable to different knowledge levels and target populations. MHFA covers a spectrum of mental health conditions. It educates participants on recognizing the signs and symptoms, understanding risk factors, and guiding those affected by a mental health issue towards the appropriate support and resources. 

Elevating Mental Health Literacy in Canada 

Advancing our mental health literacy includes recognizing specific mental health issues, obtaining knowledge of risk factors and interventions, knowing how to access services, and developing supporting attitudes towards mental health. 

Imagine witnessing someone in pain or physical distress; our instinct is to offer help immediately, and in extreme cases, we quickly dial 9-1-1. We are able to identify and respond to the visual or verbal cues of physical distress. However, our ability to recognize and effectively respond to mental health distress, does not come as easily. The MHFA program bridges the gap, teaching us how to recognize and respond to mental health issues in people close to us such as coworkers, family, or friends.

The MHFA Canada program strives to build the skills and knowledge to improve mental health literacy amongst Canadians, which is exemplified well by CGI, a leading IT and consulting firm in Canada. CGI has implemented several mental health initiatives since 2015, with one very important strategy being training their leaders in MHFA to foster an environment of awareness and internal support. As Marie-Soliel Feland, Director of Health and Well-Being at CGI emphasized: “The reality is that mental health challenges are more prevalent than physical issues in most workplaces. So why do we have a certain number of physical first-aiders but not mental health first-aiders”? Cultivating the skills fostered by MHFA empowers individuals to respond responsibly just as we do in situations concerning physical health. 

The Benefits of Mental Health First Aid 

Supporting someone through a mental health challenge can present unique challenges and it is normal to feel unsure of how to respond. There are various invisible factors at play for someone experiencing emotional distress - thoughts, emotions, past experiences and memories, which significantly impact the person’s current state. Unlike physical ailments, mental health struggles are often not immediately visible, requiring us to learn how to recognize and approach an individual who is struggling. MHFA equips individuals with the necessary skills to do so, offering a few key benefits: 

  • Teaching effective approaches to support an individual in a mental health crisis 
  • Providing listening and non-judgemental communication strategies to increase empathy and understanding of mental health issues  
  • Boosting confidence of participants to to assist someone experiencing mental health challenges
  • Enhancing the knowledge of signs, symptoms, and risk factors of different mental health problems 
  • Equipping participants with vital information and resources to guide individuals to seek professional support 
  • Normalizing mental health conversations and encouraging open dialogue

The Canadian Mental Health Landscape 

Despite many ongoing efforts to improve mental health care, many Canadians still face significant mental health struggles, with over five million Canadian teens and adults meeting criteria for mood, anxiety, or substance use disorders [5], and twenty percent of youth in Canada impacted by mental illness [1]

The need for increased understanding of how to provide support in the context of mental health challenges is evident. Of the millions struggling with mental health issues, there are many who continue to have unmet mental health needs. While programs like MHFA do not train people to treat mental illness, they do increase peoples’ understanding and ability to respond to the real life scenarios that many Canadians are experiencing. 

Real Impact: MHFA Voices from the Field 

Following a Layla Care pilot program offering free Mental Health First Aid course to professionals in the healthcare field, participants shared some valuable insights: 

“[MHFA] equips healthcare professionals with knowledge, skills, and confidence to address mental health concerns”. 

“[MFHA] is an opportunity for everyone to have basic knowledge to help those around them”. 

“Many times patients share their thoughts and feelings and disclose other personal stories. I am more aware [now] of their language and body language, and other signs that something may be coming” 

When to consider MHFA Training

There is no right or wrong time to consider MHFA training. The training is a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in increasing their understanding of mental health and how to support those around them. It can be especially beneficial for individuals who are in leadership positions and are likely to be required to support a diverse group of individuals.

To learn more about MHFA course streams, visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada. 

Moving Forward: Continuing to Learn and Access to Resources 

As the dialogue around mental health continues to evolve, the need for mental health resources and support is essential. The impact and challenges of mental illness or mental health problems continue to be significant within Canada, demonstrating that we all need to increase our mental health literacy. If you think you could benefit from learning more, consider MHFA as a first step. To find the training that is right for you, take a look at these Canadian-based training opportunities: 


1 Canadian Institute for Health Information. (2023, August 2). Canadians short on access to care for mental health and substance use. Canadian Institute for Health Information | CIHI. https://www.cihi.ca/en/taking-the-pulse-a-snapshot-of-canadian-health-care-2023/canadians-short-on-access-to-care-for 

 2. Jorm A. Mental Health Literacy: Public Knowledge and Beliefs about Mental Disorders. Br. J. Psychiatry. 2000;177:396–401. doi: 10.1192/bjp.177.5.39 

3. Mental Health Commission of Canada. (n.d.). Children and youth. https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/what-we-do/children-and-youth/

4. Mental Health Commission of Canada. (n.d.). Mental health first aid. https://mentalhealthcommission.ca/what-we-do/mental-health-first-aid/

5. Statistics Canada. (2023, September 22). Mental disorders in Canada, 2022. Statistics Canada: Canada's national statistical agency / Statistique Canada : Organisme statistique national du Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2023053-eng.htm

6. Morgan AJ, Ross A, Reavley NJ (2018) Systematic review and meta-analysis of Mental Health First Aid training: Effects on knowledge, stigma, and helping behaviour. PLOS ONE 13(5): e0197102. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0197102