Canada: Diversonomics Season 3 Episode 2 | Mask Off: The Importance Of Mental Health First Aid

Last Updated: October 11 2018
Article by Roberto Aburto and Sarah Willis

Health isn't really just about your physical health — it encompasses many components. It's how we are doing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. The goal of being healthy is to maintain a state of positive well-being that allows you to find balance in your life.

Tune in as host Roberto Aburto and guest Dr. Jennifer Laffier delve into the growing movement of mental health first aid training in the workplace.

Episode tip

“True strength is not thinking that you have no weaknesses and that you're able to handle everything. That's not true strength. True strength is knowing that you will struggle — that you may need support at times.”Dr. Jennifer Laffier, licensed therapist and MHFA master trainer, Mental Commission of Canada

To listen to the podcast, please click here


You are listening to “Diversonomics”, a Gowling WLG podcast. Season 3 Episode 2.

Roberto: Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about diversity from Gowling WLG. I'm your host Roberto Aburto, a lawyer in our Ottawa office, and I'm flying solo today. Today, we're looking at a topic that quite frankly, when we began our diversity and inclusion council at Gowling, I'm not sure that I knew it fit within our council's mandate but fortunately I have learned a lot since then and this is a topic that's front and center in trying to create a more inclusive working space. It's certainly something that is absolutely critical. The topic is mental health and today we're lucky enough to have Dr. Jennifer Laffier as our guest. She's a psychologist and trainer of mental health first aid and she has been key to Gowling WLG's own journey in trying to address challenges of mental health through our mental health first aid. Welcome to the show.

Jennifer: Thanks Roberto. I'm glad to be here.

Roberto: Great. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

Jennifer: Sure. I'm a licenced therapist and I've been in the field of mental health for about 27 years now. I provide therapy and consulting services to individuals and groups but also companies and organizations, nationally and internationally, on mental health and implementing mental health policies or changes and supporting individuals. I'm also a master trainer with the Mental Health First Aid Canada program which is from Mental Commission of Canada. That means I help deliver mental health first aid training across Canada to agencies and individuals. Very similar to physical first aid but understanding how to support people in a mental health crisis. In addition to that, I'm an associate teaching professor with University of Ontario Institute of Technology, as well.

Roberto: I've gotten to know you just a little bit because I've had the opportunity to take the training and we've corresponded a little bit setting up the podcast and you're very, very, very engaged. Why are you so passionate about mental health?

Jennifer: Jeez. You know, I think I've been there for a long time and I just actually had this conversation with the group today in the Toronto office. Probably a number of reasons but I grew up in the carnival. My parents were travelling with the carnival and so we were out on the road all the time. I think growing up in the carnival you saw a lot of mental health problems with people. Truly good amazing people but struggling with different things. I think at a young age I just really wanted to help and do something about it. More and more as I see what's happening across Canada, and we see more younger people struggling, life is getting busy and people are feeling a lot of stress, I just really want to be a part of the solution and try to do something to be more prevention based for mental health instead of always intervention based.

Roberto: I guess just to make sure that we're all on the same page, what do you mean when we say mental health?

Jennifer: I'd like the term, either interchangeable mental health, or well-being. When I think about what is our well-being, it's a holistic view of health. Health isn't really just about your physical health. Do you have a cold? Are you sick? But your health is many components. It's how are we doing physically but also emotionally, socially, cognitively and I think what comes to mind about good mental health, positive well-being, is that you can find balance in your life. You can find coping mechanisms for yourself. Be able to manage with life stressors and be able to enjoy life. When we don't feel that we can do these things, and things are out of our control, that maybe we're starting to lose that sense of balance. That that becomes the poor mental health.

Roberto: So Gowling WLG has been the first large law firm in Canada to launch mental health first aid. You mentioned it a little bit but can you tell us a little bit more about what's included in the Mental Health First Aid program? What are the components? Just tell us about the program.

Jennifer: I've been working with Gowling now for the last, it's almost been 2 years. I think it was 2016, December, when we first started the mental health first aid training for Gowling. So what that is is a 2 day certification in mental health first aid. Which is similar to physical first aid. Which is how do you help people that need support? How do you recognize the signs and symptoms that co-workers, family, friends are struggling, or even in ourselves, that we could use some support systems and coping mechanisms. We've been doing these trainings across all the offices in Gowling in the 2 day certification for all different employees at Gowling. It really gives a sense of knowledge and awareness and puts on the same page of language of mental health and reducing stigma and realizing it's really something that all of us can struggle with. None of us are immune to it. It's really important topic, not only from a professional's point of view, but a personal point of view too for people. This initiative has been going on since December 2016 with Gowling and we've, so far, trained approximately 120 Gowling employees in mental health first aid training to date.

Roberto: You've already mentioned that you're in the Toronto office today delivering yet another one. The work never ends and we do thank you and appreciate all that work. We're a large organization. A large international law firm with a big cross Canada presence and you've gone across the country delivering this program for us. What was that experience like?

Jennifer: I have to say I love Gowling. I think it's an amazing company. Just the fact that Gowling took on this initiative. We did look into at the Mental Health First Aid office in Ottawa and Gowling is the first large law firm to take on such an initiative like this with mental health first aid. Obviously other law firms have heard now and they want to try it out because they hear what Gowling is doing. I think that's amazing. The depth of which Gowling is putting this program in, at delivering it from Vancouver to Ottawa to Toronto, it's fantastic because it's this consistent training that everybody's getting across Canada and the support that everybody's becoming aware of that's available within their own communities. Every time I go to each of the offices I meet the Gowling employees, and I have to say, it's some of the best trainings I've ever done because everybody's so open and honest in conversation, wanting to help and make a difference. That's great to see in such a large organization.

Roberto: I had an opportunity to take the training and I learned a ton. For our listeners, what are some of the benefits of taking this program?

Jennifer: There's a few benefits. I would say the first one is reducing the stigma and maybe our own biased beliefs about mental health. This mentality that it's a weakness or some people can be immune to mental health and that's not true. It's something that all of us can be affected by. Life is hard. It's hard for all of us. I think that's the first thing. Reducing that stigma and challenging us to view our own personal beliefs about mental health. Second would be to help us be able to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health distress in ourselves, family, friends, co-workers. Just being able to pick up on the signs and symptoms. Not always is the behaviour that we see due to personality or due to something that's happened that day. There could be something else going on. It really helps us be aware and put is in a position where we can support people better because we're able to pick up some of those signs and symptoms. Then the training teaches us how to communicate and talk to a person. So how do we communicate if they come to us or we have to go to a family member to say, "Look. I've noticed this and I'm really worried. Can we talk?" How do you have those conversations? What kind of supports are out there? What kind of coping mechanisms can people try or personal supports can they give themselves? It's really about having a conversation in a way that de-escalates a person and gives them support. Because we know that with mental health first aid training, what the research and the evidence shows, is with mental health first aid, having this conversation this particular way and doing these certain things, people are more likely to get well to reach out for help or de-escalate.

Roberto: I appreciate it's a 2 day program, and we learned a ton, but just from a high level what should one do if they suspect that one of their colleagues is having challenges with their mental health?

Jennifer: Even today we talked about that too. What are the options? How do you go about that? I think the first is to be a friend, be a caring person and not to dismiss it and think, "Well, that's none of my business." Or, "They'll be able to handle it on their own." Just sometimes reaching out and saying, "Hey, how are you? Is everything okay?" is a benefit within the organization where we know we can talk to each other and we know that we have support networks there. So you'll be able to have these conversations with people and then be able to sit down and talk about, "Okay, this is a problem. Let's solve it together. Let's look at what's out there. What resources are available, either here within Gowling, whether that's through our own EAP programs or different initiatives, or what's in our community." So you're really able to provide support for co-workers who might otherwise feel very isolated or on their own or afraid to kind of speak up and say, "I'm struggling a bit. I need some help but I don't want to ask for help." But it puts us in a position as mental health first aiders that there's no judgment here. We're just here if somebody wants to talk and have those open conversations.

Roberto: When you talked about a reference to EAP's what are EAP's and how do they work a little bit?

Jennifer: Employee Assistance Programs will often offer mental health supports. Whether that's counselling in different areas. It could be financial counselling. It could be counselling for depression or anxiety or employee's that have children who are struggling with mental health problems or maybe senior parents that they're helping look after. The EAP program would be able to set up employees with different counsellors or therapists that would specialize in different areas and provide them support. It's completely confidential and private. It's a great resource to be able to access and get the support that you need without having to go out into the community and look to see what's around. The EAP is there, available, for the employee.

Roberto: An interesting note is in Ontario, at least for the Law Society of Ontario, there is great services in terms of mental health and counselling and those resources are available to everybody in the profession regardless of who your employer is, for a registered paralegals, registered lawyers and completely confidential. Great care to keep it confidential and my understanding is the place in Ottawa, they won't put two lawyers back to back. They really make sure that they're maintaining confidentiality and holding in that highest regard. My understanding is there's really great programs that are available. Certainly something that's underused.

Jennifer: Yeah. Maybe not even people aren't aware of the types of programs that they had. I didn't even know until a few years ago that there was specific counsellors that could help you if you have a senior parent that you're trying to look after. You can get support for that senior parent. A lot of different types of programs and help.

Roberto: We've gone and we've taken a step here. Any advice for other law firms or businesses who are concerned about promoting positive mental health in their work places and what should they do for step one or step two?

Jennifer: I think step one is maybe getting everybody on the same page around mental health and what it is and what does it look like. What would it look like in the work place? What would we see? What would it sound like if people were doing well? Not just productivity wise but mental health wise. What would it look like? I think we have to be on the same page with that sort of definition and what it looks like. And then train and give some common language to everyone around mental health and the definition. So awareness and education is first. And then really looking at those initiatives to put into the workplace. I don't think any program is good if it's an offshoot program. You know, one little session here and people come in and learn and that's it, and nothing else is done the rest of the year. It won't be effective. It has to be sustainable and it has to have several different elements where throughout the whole year there's these open conversations about mental health. There's events and initiatives going on to promote positive mental health. I also think it can't be a bottom up process. It has to also be a top down process. You really have to try to get as many people from the organization involved as possible, including senior positions, that can really set the tone and the climate and open up that conversation. That would be my two strongest recommendations. Make it sustainable by having many different initiatives going on to address mental health and make sure it's top down bottom up process as well.

Roberto: We also have a lot of listeners that are law students and this profession, there are exceptions, but it's certainly not a 9 to 5 job here.

Jennifer: No.

Roberto: We work very hard. I love my job. It's interesting and exciting and every day is different. But it's certainly challenging. For those law students that are coming up any advice for them from a mental health perspective?

Jennifer: That's a great question because we just also discussed that today too with the group that was in where we did have several senior partners too in part of the conversation. We really talked about true strength is not thinking that you have no weaknesses and that you're able to handle everything. That's not true strength. True strength is knowing that you will struggle at some times. That things can be difficult. That you may need support at times and you really have to look at that. As much as we're motivated and really high achieving. We want to do a good job. We also have to be aware that nobody is immune to mental health distress. Things will come up and it's okay to ask for help. It's okay to reach out because everyone experiences it and it's better to actually do that sooner than later. Because if we don't then that mental health distress builds and builds and builds. Then it really does start to affect our work and our performance and it's becoming something more than distress the more we leave it. So really being aware of yourself. What are my triggers? What are my warning signs that I'm not doing well? I'm overstressed. Putting some really good coping measures in. We talked today about being able to, Okay. It's a stressful job. You come to work and you're stressed and it's long hours. But where are you finding that time to counter that stress? To relax. Put in your coping measures. Not on Saturday on Sunday when you have the break but every day. So you're always trying to find balance. Yes, it's stressful but I'm constantly putting in those coping measures throughout the day. That would really benefit people that are in high intensity careers. We always say find that on a daily basis and not just counting on it's okay, I'll relax when I have a day off. But really putting it in place every single day.

Roberto: In terms of a daily coping mechanism what are some examples?

Jennifer: Some things would be getting outside. I can't stress enough how important nature and outside, being outside, fresh air, nature sounds, going for a hike, going for a walk and finding that time, natural sunlight. It's really important that people get it. We have so much research that shows the effect of walking in a forest with trees, or breathing fresh air, or hearing nature sounds, can actually do on brainwave patterns and neurotransmitters in the brain. It's fantastic. Also are things like breathing and relaxation techniques. Meditation. Mindfulness. Distraction breathing. Maybe even systematic relaxation that they can learn as well. Having sort of a tool box of coping measures is good. Several different ones that people can pick from. But other things are good for coping too. Getting out with friends. Getting out for the night. Maybe just having a relaxing night where you're thinking, "I'm not going to do anything today." Some people find it really relaxing just to get caught up on life. Get the bills paid. To be able to actually sit down and answer some family emails later on and catching up can sometimes therapeutic for people too that need to relax. It has to be something that allows you to de-stress, forget about those problems at the time and sort of put something in place where your breathing properly. You feel balanced and we should be doing that all day long as we're going with so much stress.

Roberto: I think the real answer is everybody needs to sign up for your mental health first aid course.

Jennifer: Yeah. Well, I encourage everybody to take mental health first aid. I think it puts you in a position where you feel confident. Being able to help other people. I think it also, the training wakes you up to recognizing symptoms in yourself too. Being able to watch for that and just being really aware which, in the end, makes you much stronger and much more capable of handling whatever life throws at you.

Roberto: It was really refreshing to sort of take the time and to talk about these things and think about it. Again, I really enjoyed the training. Thank you for everything you've done here and thank you so much for being with us today.

Jennifer: You're welcome. Thanks so much.

Roberto: Great. For our listeners we're looking for your interaction. If you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests please look us up at and get in touch with me. We'd love to hear from you. You can also check out the show notes for this episode at or Last, but not least, make sure you subscribe on iTunes and leave us a review. You can also follow me on Twitter on @robaburto. Dr. Laffier, do you have anything to plug?

Jennifer: You can follow me too on Twitter at @jenniferlaffier.

Roberto: Awesome. I'm going to give you a follow because I don't know if I do follow you yet. That was a good catch.

Jennifer: There you go.

Roberto: Awesome. Thank you so much for being with us. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and a big out to someone who has been behind the scenes on all of Season 2 and is producing her first ever episode today. Thank you to Amanda Lomas and also to Rachael Reid who is producing this as well. We appreciate all you work and looking forward to what's going to be a great Season 3.

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