Ian Ashman has called for his time as president of the Association of Colleges (AoC) to be “the year of mental health” in the sector.
Mr Ashman, former principal of Hackney Community College, has called for action to stem the rising tide of mental illness among students.
In 1997, he helped set up a mental health programme to address the issues. Now Mr Ashman, who became AoC president in August, has called for a concerted effort during his tenure to tackle the problem.
“It’s a personal thing for me,” he said. “We know from surveys that the incidence of mental ill-health is at record levels in colleges. The question is, how do we get them all the support they need?”
In a 2015 survey by the AoC, two-thirds of colleges reported serious mental health problems among students, with one in five saying they were on the increase. Key reasons given included: increased isolation as a result of social media and IT pressures, exam stress and financial difficulties. And yet almost half of the colleges had no full-time counsellor or mental health support, with many blaming government cuts.
'Support is very variable'
Mr Ashman, who now works as merger adviser to Hackney and Tower Hamlets colleges, attributes the situation to a lack of joined-up government and the failure of agencies to see it as their problem. “Mental health institutions don’t always think about colleges, only about schools, and support from clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) locally is very variable,” he said.
Exam pressures are particularly chronic, he added. “Young people have been rigorously tested every year for the past 20 years. The climate of competition is not something everyone can rise to without considerable support, and exam pressure is just one of the issues.”
On the positive side, Mr Ashman said that the “rapid rise in reported incidence could also be because we are better at identifying the problems. And we need to remember that a good college course is in itself effective therapy."
He added: "This is a piece of work I want to do, to help people know where they can get support and to get all CCGs working more closely with colleges.”
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