One in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. The estimated cost of mental ill health to the economy, the NHS and society as a whole is £105 billion a year.
The causes and effects of this are some of the most complex we see in society and there will be no "silver bullet" solution. However, I believe, and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) has shown through decades working within communities, that there is a clear role for community learning to play. In helping people get to grips with their mental health problems we can enable them to become active citizens, either once again or even for the first time in their lives.
This month, the WEA has published its annual Impact Report, which is based on a survey of 4,000 adult learners and looks in detail at how lifelong learning can reach those who might otherwise be forgotten and help them to improve their lives. Some of the most encouraging findings were in relation to students with mental health problems.
Our research found that 82 percent of students with mental health problems reported improvements in their condition after taking an adult education course, nearly three quarters were more motivated to improve their general health and 74 percent reported reduced stress.
These figures make encouraging reading, but there is so much more potential to fulfil. That is because no problem, least of all that of mental health, can be viewed in singularity and adult learning offers us a uniquely holistic solution.
For many people, mental health problems are one part of multiple disadvantage. In a survey of 2,290 people, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, nearly three-quarters of people within the lowest household income bracket reported poor mental health. Similarly, more than half of all disabled people who are out of work experience mental health and-or musculoskeletal conditions as their main health condition.
'Living better lives'
The WEA has over 50,000 students, many of whom are in recognised areas of deprivation. Our courses engage 38 percent of students living in a disadvantaged postcode, 48 percent on income-related benefits and 44 percent with no or very low-level previous qualifications. Almost a quarter (24 percent) report having a physical health condition or illness, 12 percent a learning difficulty or a disability and 12 percent a mental health condition.
For some of these students, it is about taking the very first steps to develop literacy or numeracy skills, which are vital in building confidence and paving the way to being an active member of society. In setting out to help people live better lives, we start to see benefits to many challenges, including mental health conditions.
Some 86 percent of our students suffering from a mental health condition reported that studying increased their self-confidence. This confidence enables people to engage with their communities, in some cases preventing the damaging impact of social isolation, which is a contributing factor associated with depression. We have seen some students who once suffered from social isolation grow in confidence over time, progressing from learner, to volunteer, to proud WEA tutor. For others, it is simply a case of staying fit and healthy and gaining a better quality of life.
In order to see this kind of success, it is vital to create the right environment to make learning accessible and free of judgement for those suffering or at risk of mental health problems.
Improving mental health
The WEA courses work because they are community-based and supported by a network of more than 3,000 passionate volunteers. Many of our students have had negative experiences of formalised education, so providing a safe environment is absolutely critical.
We know that people with low self-esteem, mental health conditions or impaired mobility need to be able to access services close to home in order to even consider attending and 69 percent of our students live within a three-mile radius of a WEA course. This also means that sustainable connections are made with other students who live nearby, deepening community ties and opening up new opportunities for them to work and socialise together.
Improved mental health is one very important example of the good that can come from community learning, but the reason why it is effective is the same reason why it can boost employability, strengthen family ties and enable better social cohesion. Because, at its very foundation, it provides a flexible approach which enables people to learn in an environment and at a pace with which they feel comfortable.
We believe that with increased support for adult education, we could reach out even more people. This not only improves their lives, but could reduce the burden on our NHS, on our benefits system and on our society by giving people the self-confidence to become active citizens themselves.
Ruth Spellman is CEO of the Workers’ Educational Association. She tweets at @RuthSpellmanWEA