How to get male learners talking about mental health

Ninety per cent of college students at UTC Plymouth are male, so it has adopted a new approach to encourage learners to open up
24th November 2019, 9:03am
Polly Lovell


How to get male learners talking about mental health
Mental Health: How To Get Male Learners To Talk About Mental Health

According to the Samaritans, men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. And yet, there is still an unspoken understanding that men keep quiet about anxiety and depression. 

At UTC Plymouth, specialist engineering college for 14- to 19-year-olds, we have 150 students and 90 per cent are male. We knew from the day we opened our doors in 2013 that we had a responsibility to all our young people to support their wellbeing. But this summer we took a step forward when we invited a local community interest group #MalesAllowed into the college to talk about dealing with stress, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Opinion: 'FE key to tackling Britain's mental health crisis'

Background: What else can FE do to support mental health?

More: Why longer holidays for teachers would benefit students

Six years ago Paul Thompson, a 32-year-old local man ,went to the Tamar Bridge to end his life. Someone stopped and talked to him and he stepped down from the bridge. Some time later, he talked a man down from the very same bridge and knew he couldn't stay quiet about the stigma surrounding men's mental health. In 2018 he set up a community interest group in Plymouth called #MalesAllowed that offered information, a Facebook page, group meets, mentoring and live Facebook chats.

The holidays are a stress point for some of our students who find themselves isolated and anxious, cut off from staff support and friendship groups for six weeks. We invited #MalesAllowed into college just before the summer break and they talked about their experiences and the importance of looking out for each other and staying healthy.

'It's OK not to be OK'

What makes #MalesAllowed different from other mental health interventions is that these men have lived through trauma. Their experiences range from suicide, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, to living with ADHD and PTSD. They are willing to talk about it and share solutions that have worked for them. Their motto is: "It's OK not to be OK," and it resonated strongly with our students.

Many of our young people join us from mainstream in Year 9 to start their intensive training in Steam subjects, workplace skills and engage in work experience. Even at the age of 14 a significant percentage of them have seen the impact of poor mental health at first hand. 

One had a friend in Year 8 who was secretly self-harming, others have friends and family whose lives are blighted by drugs and alcohol, while anxiety and aggression are becoming ever more common in our society.

Our students responded positively to the #MalesAllowed visit and opted to fundraise for them as their chosen charity. Potential events include sponsored sumo wrestling, sky diving and commando-style challenges - we like to encourage blue-sky thinking at our UTC - but there are also bike rides, cake sales and themed days.

There have been so many good outcomes from that first encounter. #MalesAllowed have touched base with all year groups through presentations and small group discussions. They recently organised a tournament with 32 seven-a-side teams and when we started a team, they came to train with us at the first Wednesday evening fitness session. Harry, one of our Year 9 students, is a promising player and soon found himself swapped in as captain for a recent #MalesAllowed against Plymouth Argyle fundraiser.

It has permeated our curriculum. We have a strong emphasis on oracy and presentation skills and #MalesAllowed has reinforced the importance of listening to and understanding other people's opinions. Several students have become advocates for the charity, honing their persuasive language and campaigning skills.

Staff wellbeing

We have also taken a closer look at how we support one another. Teaching can be a stressful job these days and unions have quite rightly turned a spotlight on mental health and wellbeing. Staff have lives outside of work and may be going through divorce, have caring responsibilities, concerns about their own children or be experiencing clinical depression. We look for ways to get people to be more honest about the pressures they are under. We also offer practical support such as a temporary reduction in their working hours.

We nurture our students and build their skills and confidence. We open at 7.30am and offer a free breakfast - an important consideration for those who travel to Plymouth from Cornwall or have similar long journeys. Students have a long day of intensive work until 5pm and we offer support for homework at lunchtime and after the working day ends. We also encourage them to spend breaktimes socialising, instead of getting their phones out to check social media or an online game.

#MalesAllowed has helped us to reflect on the values that matter to us and, as a result of working with them, we believe we have created a happier and healthier workplace for staff and students. We are not just supporting our immediate and wider community, but also an inspirational group of men who are actively saving lives.

Polly Lovell is the principal of UTC Plymouth

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