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MHFA training gives people the confidence to have "lifesaving" conversations

Sarah Keelty and Stacey Kaye Mental Health First Aid Aotearoa instructors from Te Whatu Ora Waikato

Recognising and responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis or challenge is a skill every New Zealander should have, say Sarah Keelty and Stacey Kaye.

The Hamilton-based duo work at Manaaki Raatonga aa Iwi (Mental Health and Addiction Services in Hamilton), part of Health New Zealand | Te Whatu Ora Waikato, where Sarah (pictured above, left) is Team Lead and Stacey (pictured above, right) is an Occupational Therapist.

They are also passionate advocates of the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Aotearoa programme.

“I feel that it is not only life changing, but it is lifesaving,” says Sarah.

MHFA is an evidenced-based education programme which equips people with the practical skills, knowledge, and confidence to support someone experiencing a mental health challenge or crisis.

“Mental health is such an invisible load,” says Sarah. “A mental health emergency should be viewed the same as a medical emergency, like breaking a leg or having a heart condition.”

The MHFA programme was developed in Australia more than 20 years ago and is now taught in 29 countries around the world. In New Zealand, the national license for the programme is held by Te Pou, which adapted edition four of the programme for Aotearoa in 2020.

Dynamic duo

Sarah and Stacey were among the first cohort of MHFA Aotearoa instructors trained in the updated edition in New Zealand in 2022.

Together, they have trained more than 300 people in the MHFA programme, which continues to be in demand across the region.

“The room is always full,” says Sarah, who jokes that they are “the Sarah and Stacey show”.

Their friendship, sense of humour and camaraderie help them to teach complex and sensitive topics including depression, anxiety, psychosis, problematic substance use, with a crisis focus on suicidal thoughts and behaviours, and non-suicidal self injury.

While the vast majority of their attendees are health professionals from Health NZ Waikato, they have also trained many people in the community including those from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government entities with ties to Health NZ.

Among them are allied health professionals, qualified nurses and midwives, frontline hospital staff, and marae-based community support workers. Training has taken Sarah and Stacey everywhere from Thames to Raglan, Ngāruawāhia and Te Kūiti.

Lending their expertise

With their expertise and knowledge of the mental health and addiction sector, Sarah and Stacey – and Health NZ Waikato – have played an important part to the look and feel of the MHFA Aotearoa programme.

They were part of the clinical focus group reviewing content when the programme was being adapted by Sarah Christensen from Te Pou in 2021.

They also helped coordinate the artwork, poetry and waiata which features in the MHFA Aotearoa (fourth edition) workbook, pictured below. It was created by tāngata whai ora in one of their art therapy groups and many pieces now adorn the walls of Manaaki Raatonga aa Iwi’s community house.

MHFA Manual

“When we open the manual and we are doing the training, it means a lot, because the artwork in there is by people with lived experience, who have mental health journeys,” says Stacey.

For everyone and anyone

Sarah and Stacey believe that MHFA training is critical – not only for those working in the health sector, but for all New Zealanders.

“The lack of knowledge out there in the community is overwhelming and eye-watering. I am really surprised that, in 2024, still how much is not known about mental health,” says Sarah.

At the same time, “the demands on services are phenomenal”, which is why Mental Health First Aid is so important, adds Stacey.

“Just knowing how to have those conversations that people learn through Mental Health First Aid training is wonderful.”

Adds Sarah: “What I love about the programme is it’s taken mental health education out of a clinical setting and made it relevant to the community – whether a sports club or community setting.”

Confidence to ask challenging questions

MHFA training teaches attendees to ask questions beyond just ‘are you okay’.

“Are you okay won’t always get you the [true] answer because people often say, ‘I’m fine’, and that usually means ‘I’m not fine’,” says Stacey.

Adds Sarah: “The biggest thing I take away from Mental Health First Aid, is the confidence people get after attending those two days of training. Because they often have that gut feeling that something is not right with somebody, but they don’t know what to do about it.”

She recalls attendees who, after their first day of training, have gone home and had a conversation with a family member or called a friend they were worried about, leading to a breakthrough and an opportunity to get them the help they needed.


The feedback from MHFA trainees has been positive, particularly from those who found their “voice” through doing the programme.

“People have said, ‘thank you, I never felt brave enough to speak out [before doing the training],” says Stacey.

Questions around mental health and suicide can feel “taboo”, said one participant. “But I am now confident to ask those questions.”

Other people said they now had the tools and strategies not only to help others in their workplaces, but to help themselves and others in their personal lives.

Training is designed to be supportive and “a safe space” for attendees, and many noted in their feedback that Sarah and Stacey were “compassionate”, “respectful”, “approachable” and “non-judgemental”.

Said one participant: “I loved how understanding the instructors were when it came to the more sensitive topics. They gave us time to learn and breathe if we needed to. I would recommend this course to anyone in the workplace or for general knowledge.”

Find out more about Mental Health First Aid Aotearoa at

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