Colleges must collaborate to protect mental health

Students and staff need mental health support more than ever - both now and when we return to college, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

Mental health: 70% of young people are suffering with mental health

There’s no doubt about it: this pandemic is taking and will continue to take an enormous toll on the mental health and wellbeing of all of us. There are many factors contributing to this: the disruption and isolation of lockdown, fears about our own and our loved ones’ health, enormous uncertainty about the future, limited access to family, friends, carers and support that we all rely on.

In March, YoungMinds surveyed more than 2,000 young people with a recent history of mental health needs. Overall, 83 per cent of respondents agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse and 66 per cent of respondents agreed that watching or reading the news was unhelpful for their mental health.

The good news is that the majority of respondents said that they were still getting some level of mental health support, despite the immense challenges that services are facing. We’ve seen how colleges are continuing to support their students remotely, with counselling services moving online and offering daily phone calls to check in. The challenge will only increase: many young people voiced concerns about their family’s health, school, college and university closures, loss of routines and coping mechanisms, isolation and a loss of social connections.


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Teaching in unique circumstances

We have some ideas about what can be done to address these challenges in colleges. The YoungMinds survey highlighted some of them: young people said that they found face-to-face calls with friends (72 per cent), watching TV/films (72 per cent), exercise (60 per cent) and learning new skills (59 per cent) helpful. But these are circumstances never experienced before and there will be a lot to learn from across the college sector and from others working on this agenda.

That’s why we are launching a series of webinars for college staff on mental health and wellbeing. With around 700,000 16- to 19-year-olds and even more adults “attending” college, it’s not just those with prior mental health needs that we are concerned about. Helping to improve mental wellbeing is crucial for everyone. Sadly, we have to expect the numbers needing more individual support to increase.

We’re also keen to look at the transitions people are making: often these are the times of most uncertainty; moving into a college, apprenticeship or work can challenge self-confidence and cause anxiety.

This year will be unique, with none of the usual rites of passage of exams, proms or leavers' services. We want to look at how the FE sector can reach out to try to make starting a new college in September as smooth as possible when students didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to their old school.

Creative solutions to supporting transitions

I’m expecting all sorts of creative solutions to emerge. How about virtual tours of the college so students can become aware of the layout? Backed up with introductions to the teaching and support staff so that students know who they will meet when they start? Or how about virtually bringing classes together online with Zoom or Microsoft Teams?

For continuing students who are moving from the first to the second year of their course, the transition is about managing the lack of face-to-face teaching for six months. How daunting will it be for students to get back into the rhythm and challenges of learning and studying after such a long break? What extra support will they need to catch up? How many will be anxious and lacking the confidence in their ability to meet those challenges? 

For students ending their college studies this summer, there will be transitions into higher education, apprenticeships and into work. There may also be many who struggle to find their next step and who will need advice and guidance to ensure it’s a positive one as well as new programmes to help them navigate a tough labour market.

Collaboration is key 

We also need to be prepared for the grieving that students and staff may have to go through this year. Bereavement is a strong trigger for mental health needs and sadly we have to expect that  many students and staff will be starting the academic year having lost loved ones, friends and colleagues. With lockdown and social isolation, many will not have been able to see people or attend services, heightening the feelings of loss, guilt or shock.  

We’ll need many partnerships to deal with all of this between colleges, with schools, universities, employers and a wide range of voluntary and community organisations at a local level as well as the specialist mental health national charities. Colleges will have local referral and partner organisations already, but it’s likely that the scale of need will outstrip those resources without careful planning and preparation now.

We must also continue to talk about the challenges, share what works and secure the extra resources that young people and adults will need to help them through some difficult times. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of people whose education has been disrupted to minimise the impact as much as we can. That needs careful consideration of the education issues, as well as the wider mental health and wellbeing issues. I’m confident that colleges will be shining lights in facing those challenges head-on.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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