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Is Mental Health Training Having a Long-Lasting Effect?

Training is the ‘go-to’ solution for workplace mental health. But is mental health training long-lasting?

According to Mental Health First Aid England, 400,000 people have received mental health training of some type since 2009, with the pace of training delivery increasing in recent years. But with training known to have a diminishing impact over time, is mental health training proving as effective these figures suggest?

For training and learning outcomes to be optimised, training must be delivered in an appropriate manner and supported over time.


The ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve’ suggests as much as 75% of newly acquired knowledge may be forgotten in as little as six days, if there is no attempt to retain it.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgetting_curve

Ebbinghaus also found that a second round of learning proved highly efficient, in that the time taken to ‘re-learn’ a syllabus previously covered was just 25% of the time originally taken to cover it.


However, this forgetfulness can be countered by improving the recall of knowledge gained through training by managing the effectiveness of training delivery. Training is likely to be most effective when employees:


  • Learn the right things

  • Learn at the right time

  • Can immediately put learning into action

Learning the right things relates to learning relevant and necessary new skills. Training must provide employees with the right new skills which should they should require to continue to be effective at work. If the skills learnt are not essential, they may not be perceived as relevant and, even though new skills may be of interest or even motivational in the short-term, they may be quickly forgotten if they are not relevant and necessary.

Learning is most effective when it is timely. A pressing need must exist that demands new skills to be learnt, providing employees with a motivation to learn. If employees do not perceive training to be timely, with skills learnt not being immediately required, training may be perceived by employees as non-essential and it may prove less effective than expected.

Training is most effective when employees are immediately required to put newly learnt skills into action. If new skills are not immediately utilised, competence in their use dwindles. Putting skills into action reinforces learning and allows for theoretical classroom-based learning to be augmented through learning by experience.

As an example, if a new computerised core operating system is about to be implemented and training in the system’s use is delivered just before the system goes ‘live’, training will provide employees with the right skills they need to continue to be effective at work, at the time they need these new skills, with employees putting learning into action immediately after the training has been delivered. The chance of training proving effective is high.


If training is perceived as non-essential, with no pressing need for it, and if training is not immediately put into action following its delivery, a less than optimum level of recall can be expected. Unless well managed, mental health training may not deliver the capability improvement in mental health skills the training sponsor expected.


Reflecting back on Mental Health First Aid England’s numbers, reporting the number of mental health training courses delivered and the number of people trained might be considered misleading if Ebbinghaus’ theory holds true, with a high proportion of people forgetting what they learn. The reported numbers of people trained might need to be reduced by up to 75% to arrive at the number of people who have actually retained the knowledge gained through mental health training. This 75% ‘forgetting’ rate would probably be a worst-case scenario. But if true, it would amount to just 100,000 of the 400,000 people trained retaining mental health knowledge gained through training. One thing is certain; perfect knowledge retention is impossible. Even taking a best-case scenario, not all of the 400,000 people trained will have retained the knowledge learnt. As is evident, knowledge retention following mental health training is likely to fall between a range of 25% and 75%. Mental health training cannot be considered 100% effective. As a result of the ‘forgetting curve’, mental health training alone, and especially one-off training, should not be regarded as a panacea by employers.


The lessons here are obvious.

  • Mental health training must be made relevant and timely.

  • Mental health training must be provided as part of a programme of activity that sees new skills gained put into action immediately after training delivery.

  • Training courses should be reinforced, with the learning repeated periodically, perhaps on an abridged basis.

  • A more accurate means of assessing the capability created or improved through mental health training must be developed, as opposed to simply counting the number of training courses held or the number of people trained.

The volume of mental health training delivered does not provide a proportionate increase in mental health capability. Knowledge gained through training will be forgotten if training is not relevant and necessary, timely, and if new skills learnt are not quickly put to use. Employers cannot simply rely on a ‘volume’ approach to mental health training.


However, employers can mitigate the effects of the ‘forgetting curve’ by ensuring mental health training is relevant and timely, by immediately putting newly acquired mental health skills to use and by refreshing mental health skills from time to time.

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