Hear from Big Dog Little Dog, the social enterprise working with CACHE to help raise awareness and reduce suicide

Big Dog Little Dog (BDLD) is a two-man social enterprise focussed on reducing stigma around mental health. Both former chief executives, Bob Kitchin and Kevin Moore were friends running rival organisations – until they hit 50 and decided that they didn’t want to compete in the rat race anymore.

They wanted to do what they love, which is delivering energetic, often humorous and definitely effective training around mental health, mental illness, suicide and self-harm. Bob and Kevin decided from the start that this should be a not-for-profit social enterprise – they wanted to pay the bills whilst giving something back. Three years down the line, BDLD have already worked with over 3,000 learners, delivering accredited Mental Health First Aid courses, sector-specific webinars and bespoke workshops.

BDLD and CACHE have worked together to develop qualifications in suicide awareness and reduction, at a time when there’s a broad portfolio of mental health qualifications out there, but only a limited number solely targeted at this sensitive and life-saving subject. The qualifications developed by CACHE and BDLD are the first regulated awards in the UK designed to raise awareness of and reduce suicide.

Kevin from BDLD spoke to us about the benefits of their service, the impact of Covid-19 on mental health, and why this qualification in suicide prevention is so vital. 

What are the overall aims of BDLD?

In a nutshell, to help reduce the workplace stigma around mental ill health. Did you know that a Time to Change survey suggested that people are more likely to talk about their debts and their sex life than their mental health? That’s got to change - too many lives are lost needlessly. So we look to use classroom-based training, remote delivery, webinars and consultancy services to make a dent in this issue - but we are just 2 blokes, so we need help!

What services and training do you provide?

95% of what we do is training. We deliver Mental Health First Aid in 5 different formats, as well as a lot of bespoke courses. We have a client list that includes central government, local authorities, multi-nationals and small businesses. The other 5% is consultancy, helping organisations to change the way that they work to be more mental health-friendly.

Can you describe the benefits of your services to organisations and individuals?

Different clients use us for different purposes. Most commonly, we use courses such as Mental Health First Aid to help an organisation to create a team of advocates within their workforce. But our strong ties to the employability sector have seen us do plenty of work equipping frontline staff to deal with jobseekers with poor mental health - for instance, we trained half of Jobcentre Plus’ London staff in their own mental health course, plus we offer specific training such as how to support jobseekers to disclose their mental health condition, criminal convictions, etc.

Is the stigma around mental health changing?

People are certainly talking about it more, which is a start. But the stigma is so ingrained that it may take a generation or two before we see seismic change. People are saying the right things more now, but that’s not the goal - we need people to be thinking the right things. And the goodwill can become misguided - a recent trope has been “it’s okay to not be okay” – but that doesn’t mean people should be suffering without help! What we should be saying is “it’s okay to tell people that you’re not okay”.

Why do you think it’s important for employers to support their staff with mental health and to have conversations about it?

Think about the massive contribution that work makes to your life - if you’re up at 7:00 Monday to Friday and home by 6:00, that’s 55 hours a week that you’re focussed on work. All but 4 or 5 hours of your day. Good work therefore has a fantastic effect on our mental health, but bad work can be the difference between healthy or ill, even life or death. That Time to Change survey that I mentioned earlier, it suggests that only 13% of us will talk about our mental health at work. Never mind the elephant, it’s the herd in the room!

Can you give us your thoughts on how the current COVID-19 situation has impacted mental health, and changed the requirement around provision for mental health support?

Wow, where to begin? For us, there are three key areas. Firstly, those with pre-existing mental health disorders may have found this time really challenging. NHS services have had to contract, and remote delivery has had to be deployed to keep everyone safe. I think that the NHS has done well in this regard, given the very short notice that it’s had - and this has been helped by recent developments in online talking therapies and apps. But these options take some getting used to, and not everyone is comfortable having such intimate conversations over the phone or via internet-based channels.

Secondly, working from home can be challenging to our well-being. The workplace provides some vital structures that we hang our mental health on, such as routines, social interaction and purpose - and being away from that workplace puts those aspects at risk. We’ve been calling it the “Dickens Perspective”, as our mental health has been challenged from the well-being ghosts of past (existing disorders, thoughts of our old workplace, etc.), present (Covid-19 concerns, home-working distractions/hazards) and future (concerns about returning to the workplace and commuting again, etc.). Everyone’s honeymoon period is over and some people are finding it really challenging to work effectively from home, especially if their home environment is not conducive to work, and maybe even a dangerous place for them to be 24/7.

Lastly, we’re particularly concerned about furloughed workers. Here is a massive number of working people who suddenly have no work to do - so those structures that I mentioned earlier have disappeared altogether for the moment. It’s absolutely vital that managers stay in contact with these people, at a time when they don’t “need” to, and when they are particularly vulnerable.

But on a brighter note, we’ve seen some superb responses to these challenges. MHFA England has called on the entire national network of Mental Health First Aiders - that’s half a million people - to support colleagues and loved ones during the crisis. Alongside this, some funders such as the National Lottery have siloed all of their available funds for projects specifically supporting people through Covid-19, and DWP has moved a huge swathe of staff onto processing new benefits claims to minimise hardship - these organisations are working at a pace that we’ve never seen before.

Can you tell us about the qualifications in suicide prevention you’ve developed with CACHE and why they are important?

It’s a project that we’re very excited about, because we really need to move these conversations into the mainstream. There are some great suicide intervention programmes out there, but one like ours, which leads to the achievement of a formal, Ofqual-regulated, qualification, is key for two reasons:

Firstly, the Level 2 Award focusses on raising people’s awareness of suicide, which we need to do in order to normalise the conversation. By making the Level 2 Ofqual-regulated, we hope that colleges and training providers take up the challenge, introduce the course to their portfolios and turn this into a course that’s pretty much delivered by default. Over 1 in 5 people have had suicidal thoughts, so the more we all know about the triggers, the signs and what effective services look like, the more we can look out for each other and hopefully save more lives.

Secondly, the Level 3 Award is designed to enable people - particularly frontline workers - to have these conversations. It’s a tool that we developed to make these conversations flow. We see other courses urging suicide conversations to happen, but they often fall short of telling participants how to do that - and that’s what our STEPS model provides. Ofqual regulation will also enable us to quality assure delivery.

With both being short courses, we’re convinced that people can find the time to develop their knowledge and skills in this essential area. We also sometimes hear people point out that Mental Health First Aid a) isn’t a recognised qualification and b) doesn’t focus enough on skills development. STEPS has been designed to be a really powerful standalone course, whilst also being the perfect add-on to MHFA.

Who else have you been working with to develop these qualifications?

Together, we’ve  partnered with LearnBox, a market leader in the creation and delivery of high-quality video content. LearnBox empowers adult learners and targets workforce skills gaps, to enable them to thrive and grow, which is why we thought they would be a perfect partner for us to work with.  LearnBox has created high quality digital resources which allows the Level 2 Award to be fully delivered and assessed remotely on their platform.

In addition to that, we’ve also been joined by Katrina Thomas, a business psychologist from AELP, who will be measuring the impact within key demographics in order to evaluate the success of the qualifications.

Can you tell us about your experience in working with CACHE in developing these qualifications?

CACHE has been amazing. I’ve been in the skills sector since 1995 and I’ve never known an awarding organisation to be so committed to a project, so enthused about an idea and so willing to work in partnership. I truly hope that this is the start of a long-term relationship - we currently have a shortlist of another seven qualifications we could possibly add to this suite! My sincerest thanks go out to everyone involved, from David as CEO, to the curriculum, accreditation and business development teams who have worked so hard to get their heads around the project, and who have even been guinea pigs in testing the content!

Anything else you would like to mention?

I’d certainly like to share some small detail about what’s in the pipeline, as we want to involve some sector experts going forward. The STEPS project will see the launch of the Level 2 and 3 Awards, along with dedicated and accredited Level 4 qualification to  enable delivery. Once we’re up and running, the next steps include creating a schools version and tailored content to focus on priority groups, such as prisoners, the homeless, the unemployed and those with substance misuse issues. So we’re going to be asking for relevant and credible organisations to help steer the content of those. Anyone reading this who’s interested can drop us a line at [email protected]

You can read more about this offer by visiting cache.org.uk/steps

To find out more about BDLD and the inspiring work that they do, visit their website.