Mental Health First Aid Training and Research Program

 Mental Health First Aid

Above: Betty Kitchener and husband Prof Tony Jorm.

Mental Health First Aid Training and Research Program

The testimonial below was written by a Mental Health First Aid course facilitator.  

‘On behalf of all of the nurses and midwives who have attended MHFA courses in our region, I would like to thank you for bringing this wonderful course to us all. It is without doubt one of the most important and satisfying courses I have ever had the privilege to facilitate.’ 

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Training and Research Program conducts research and training courses that aspire to increase Australians’ understanding of mental health. 


The courses encourage community members to recognise symptoms of mental illness, to feel comfortable and informed about seeking help or assisting others to seek help, and to reduce stigmatising attitudes towards mental illness.  
‘In other health areas, the average person knows what the symptoms of a heart attack are and knows where to go if they develops chest pains,’ says Program Director Betty Kitchener. ‘We want mental illness to be at that same level.’ 


Mental Health First Aid originated on a dog walk. While Kitchener and Jorm walked their King Charles Cavalier in the late 90s, they developed what would go on to form the philosophical basis of the program. 
In 2001, Kitchener and Jorm began writing a MHFA manual and accompanying course. Since then, the MHFA Training and Research Program has been developed, evaluated and disseminated nationally and internationally. The program received three years funding through the National Suicide Prevention Strategy (NSPS) in March 2007 to develop a youth version of the 12-hour generic MHFA course. This allowed a full-time youth coordinator to be employed as part of the MHFA team. 
Says Kitchener: ‘It struck me: why doesn’t regular first aid teach about mental illness? Across our lifetime most of us aren’t going to come across someone who’s had a cardiac arrest or a respiratory arrest. We’re much more likely to come across somebody who is troubled by mental health problems.’ 


Mental Health First Aid is a national NSPS project and has instructors based in every state.   

About the Program Director

Betty Kitchener is the Program Director and Adult Coordinator of the Mental Health First Aid program, which she began developing in 2001 with the assistance of husband and mental health researcher Professor Tony Jorm. Kitchener’s career spans roles in teaching, nursing, counselling and research. She has had episodes of depression and has been hospitalised twice for this illness. Kitchener brings energy and enthusiasm to her role in MHFA and is thankful for the positive affect the program has generated in Australia and abroad. 


MHFA is modelled on public education programs such as Regular First Aid, which is run by Red Cross and St John. It is also similar to the ASSIST program from Lifeline.  


The mental health literacy research carried out by MHFA program helps to regularly update the program and curriculum. They train instructors to  deliver the 12-hour Adult MHFA course, the 14-hour Youth MHFA course, or the 14-hour Aboriginal MHFA course. The instructors are not employed by the MHFA program. Rather, they have the autonomy to organise their MHFA courses. The three main MHFA courses offered are: 

Adults Helping Adults 
The original and most widely spread training course, Adults Helping Adults addresses mental health literacy and discusses the symptoms of common mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders. Says Kitchener: ‘The focus is on all the common and severe mental illnesses, the symptoms of a developing problem and also of the crises and what to do.’
Adults Helping Adolescents
This is designed for teachers, parents and other adults interacting with young people. 
Helping Aboriginal People
This program focuses on Aboriginal people helping other Aboriginal people who are developing a mental health problem or are in a mental health crisis. Says Kitchener: ‘It is based on adult literature (but) there is not much evidence available about what works.’ 

Mental Health First Aid translates their training materials for culturally and linguistically diverse participants. There are Vietnamese, Croatian and Italian versions available. 


  • Finding the right staff – passionate people who have ‘a fire in the belly.’  
  • Finding the right instructors – ‘We don’t just let people come and do it because they can pay the money,’ says Betty Kitchener.  
  • Quality assurance – ie ensuring the instructors keep running the program well.  
  • Keeping up with communication and correspondence – ie phone calls and emails. 

Project partners
  • The Federal Magistrates Court 
  • The Family Court of Australia  
  • Community House  
  • Red Cross  
  • The Education Department of South Australia 
Positive outcomes

Since the inception of Mental Health First Aid, cofounder Tony Jorm has completed two national surveys of mental health literacy, one in 1995 and another in 2003. Jorm observed definite improvements in the public’s knowledge of mental illness and their stigmatising attitudes, particularly towards depression and anxiety.  
‘We’d like to think that Mental Health First Aid has contributed to that,’ says Kitchener, though she acknowledges that their work is ‘just one part of the jigsaw.’  

Lessons learned

Betty Kitchener has learnt many lessons throughout her experience working on Mental Health First Aid but there is one she is particularly passionate about. Kitchener believes the processes by which evidence rolls down into practice needs to be a lot faster. 

‘There is so much evidence out there about better ways of helping people with mental illness in the clinical setting,’ says Kitchener, ‘but it often takes a long time for the translation of the research to filter down into clinical practice.’ 

Future plans
  • Disseminate the national guidelines for Mental Health First Aid.  
  • Ongoing rewrites and revisions of the curriculum.  
  • Develop more guidelines for Aboriginal people.   
  • Further dissemination of the e-learning kit.  
More information

For more information visit the Mental Health First Aid website, or email Program Director & Adult MHFA Coordinator Betty Kitchener