Last week, alarming statistics by the Royal Society of Public Health showed that during this pandemic, 70 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds feel anxious about the future more often than normal, while 62 per cent feel lonelier.
The statistics may not come as a shock to many – the impact of lockdown on mental health and wellbeing has been well-documented – but that should not make them any less significant.
Perhaps most worrying is that in the same survey, more than half (58 per cent) of young adults agreed that the government was not doing enough to protect the public's mental health and wellbeing.
Coronavirus: Thank you, teachers – you are our superheroes
Mental health: 70% of young people suffering
Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual event to openly discuss the importance of good mental health and wellbeing, and crucially, what support and guidance is out there for those who may be suffering.
Since the beginning of lockdown, the FE sector has gone above and beyond to support both staff and students, not just academically. So what does good practice look like when it comes to supporting mental health and wellbeing remotely?
‘We will not abandon anyone’
Angela McKenna, teaching and learning manager and designated safeguarding lead at learning provider Remit, says from the beginning, the organisation was conscious that there would be a range of issues to tackle, from social isolation and time away from family – or perhaps too much time with family – to increased internet use and the introduction of new ways to communicate.
To ensure that learners stay safe online, Remit collated information on everything from the HouseParty app to “Zoombombing” and sent out guidance for learners on how to use these apps safely and avoid any risk.
“It’s important to stay in contact but it’s important to stay safe. With the Zoombombing issues that came up, we told them 10 things they needed to do to avoid that happening. There was a fear about HouseParty and people’s details being taken without permission. That caused huge anxiety,” McKenna says,
Information packs have also been sent out on so-called "fake news", helping learners to identify trustworthy sources of information, McKenna says.
“There’s a lot of anxiety over job prospects. Even if the learner does lose employment, it’s our duty to carry on working with them. We’re keeping them engaged and supporting them, we’re not going to abandon anyone.
“The worst thing is to allow someone to spiral into poor mental health because they’ve got nothing to focus on,” she says.
Staying connected has been vital to supporting learners, she explains. The provider's safeguarding phone number is clearly signposted to all learners and they know that they can call 24 hours a day. Personal coaches are constantly in contact, too, and both students and staff have access to an external counselling service
“Never underestimate asking the right question at the right time. People will try and cope with a problem or bury it or ignore it, and then someone asks them a question as simple as how are you and it all comes out,” says McKenna.
To further support staff, Remit has appointed “furlough champions” who are active in organising whole company events for all staff – including those on furlough. They also seek out CPD opportunities for staff to complete and check in regularly. Sue Pittock, Remit’s chief executive, hosts a weekly meeting in which anyone in the company can ask about the future of the business – an opportunity that is particularly important as many training providers are struggling financially and staff are more likely to be worried about their job security.
“What happens at the end of this is always going to be the biggest fear, no matter what anyone says. Having that weekly chat with Sue does give some reassurance. We can ask the questions we want to ask, it’s an open culture,” McKenna says.
Recreating the college community remotely
Colleges are also taking positive action to support student and staff mental health. Writing for Tes, East Coast College principal and chief executive Stuart Rimmer recently highlighted great practice in colleges across the UK from Barnsley College holding virtual student council meetings to Kirklees College focusing on parental engagement to support mental health. This included "parents' walk-ins", where parents can access support materials and practical approaches.
At New College Durham, the focus has been on keeping the community together to aid mental health, says principal John Widdowson.
“We took an early decision to keep people in touch in a way that recreates the college community. We recognise that people come to work for more than the love of teaching students,” he says.
“We’ve got half an eye on making sure that the community stays robust and healthy in all senses of the word for when we come back in and start again. There’s going to be a lot of work and it’s going to be hard to get back up to speed again.”
A weekly update is sent out to all staff members with recipes, book recommendations, exercise routines, and an update on the deputy chief executive’s new puppy. There has also been a staff Facebook page set up where people can post and share pictures and updates. It now has got more than 200 active users and there is a photograph competition each week.
“It’s all to keep that sense of community going. In the newsletter, we tell people that if they do have problems with isolation and it has become a bit much for them, they can get in touch with the college’s mental health counsellor,” he says.
“Connecting is not just important for the current situation but it’s also important for keeping that sense of community together for when we start again. It will be months until people come into contact with each other. We don’t want to be too overbearing, no one has to participate in this, but I think that staff do appreciate that more informal contact we have.”
Announcements from the government last week about colleges opening from 1 June at the earliest will have exacerbated anxieties further, and the key to managing this, Widdowson says, is keeping staff informed and making sure they know there is no “mad rush” to get back.
When it comes to student mental health, Widdowson stresses the importance of referrals. While there is a mental health counsellor employed by the college, staff are also encouraged to refer students to statutory and voluntary mental health agencies.
“We have a semi-rural area here and there is a limit to what can be done online. We’ve put tutors on the alert, if they feel the student has got an issue, then they can escalate to referral. At the end of the day, it’s got to be the appropriate qualified authorities who can do this and not staff online,” he says.
Supporting adults online
Mark Malcomson, chief executive and principal of City Lit, said that because wellbeing and community are central to what the college offers its students, there was a real concern about what lockdown would mean for learners.
“Wellbeing and community are a huge part of what we do. Our teachers are all experts of what they do and people come because they can create ceramics or learn a language or whatever it might be. But they also come because they like getting together and they like their community and their wellbeing is a part of that. Education, community and wellbeing are all inextricably linked,” he says.
The college caters to a diverse group of students: from adult learners to deaf students and learners with severe disabilities. The safety, particularly of vulnerable groups of people, was paramount, Malcomson says, and the college decided to shut its doors earlier necessary as part of the government's lockdown.
“We didn’t think it was right for people to come in; nearly everyone that comes to City Lit travels on public transport, so you are creating another degree of anxiety,” he says.
Over just a few weeks, all provision was transferred online. Classes are running as normal, and teachers are in constant contact – whether over the phone or via video chat – with the most vulnerable learners.
“We’ve had feedback from adults and carers who say that other organisations haven’t stepped up, but we have. Our teams have really gone the extra mile for those learners who are the most vulnerable in society, and who are the most vulnerable in terms of their physical and mental wellbeing,” Malcomson says.
He explains students and staff have been working together to ensure they are all comfortable accessing lessons online: it’s a new experience for everyone, and some classes did “trial runs” over the Easter holidays to ensure everyone could join in the lesson confidently, reducing any unnecessary anxiety or stress for many.
“There’s a much more conscious effort to make space within the session for people to have a chat, and to have a conversation and go off the learning slightly. In a class I take part in, I’ve really noticed how great the tutor is about having a natter at the beginning, and when there’s a break in learning, being there for people who just want to have a cup of tea and a chat,” the principal says.
“It’s about creating space for people to talk about how they are getting on. It’s that sense of community – little tweaks like that are very important.”
“Teachers are there for us when we need them”
Alfie Payne, a student at Farnborough College of Technology, says the hardest thing about dealing with the lockdown was that it happened overnight.
“For those students in Year 13, they’ve had their last day and they got 24 hours' notice that it was their last day, and that was quite a battering for them. They are going off to all sorts of different places in the country to go to university, and they haven’t had any closure,” he says.
“They haven’t had the extra few months they thought they would get. They have struggled more than me and my friends, knowing we’ve got another year to come. We haven’t had anything immediately ripped away from us like they have.”
All of the hard work from FE providers has not gone unnoticed by students. Payne says that he and his peers are appreciative of the effort his teachers have put in to keep communication going.
“My lecturers have taken the time to message us all one to one and ask how things are, whether they can do anything to support us, and they have been keeping personal contact. We know they are there for us if and when we need them,” he says.