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

The government's green paper on transforming mental health provision for young people offers an opportunity for the FE sector, writes Stuart Rimmer

Stuart Rimmer

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"I killed my sister!” said a 17-year-old female arts student one week into this academic year. Thankfully, it turns out that perceptions didn’t concur with reality, but it revealed a significant mental health issue for one of my students. To date, despite being a small college, we have had more than 600 events of safeguarding or mental health concerns reported, ranging from increasing anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation and PTSD – and there are 287 more colleges in this country.

The government says one in four people has a mental disorder at some point in their life, with an annual cost of £105 billion. At the last Conservative Party conference, the prime minister announced the commitment to review the Mental Health Act, which is a welcome step in the right direction. But this must not be the be all and end all of the work.

The importance of mental health and wellbeing in students cannot be underestimated. We all have a duty to continue raising the issues. The consultation on the Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision green paper is the opportunity to acknowledge one solution for helping young people: further education.

Colleges well represented

Through the Association of Colleges' (AoC) mental health policy group, more than 25 colleges are working on this key issue. As a group, we have lobbied hard and are well reflected in the consultation document. We have also been invited to give evidence in tomorrow's education and health select committee. However, it is up to us as a wider sector to respond to this important consultation, which closes in March.

According to the green paper, "half of all mental health conditions are established before the age of 14". However, it is important also to remember that 75 per cent are established before the age of 24, hence a quarter of mental health conditions develop during the time when students are at college.

The AoC's most recent mental health survey, 85 per of colleges said they had experienced an increase of students declaring mental health issues and in many cases, these issues had first arisen while the young person was at college. 81 per cent felt that there was a significant number of students who had undeclared mental health difficulties and 74 per cent had referred students to A&E for mental health-related issues in the previous year.

Differences between schools and colleges

In implementing the recommendations included in the green paper, it is important to remember that there are substantial differences between schools and colleges, which will affect the way in which recommendations need to be implemented.

The transition from the more structured environment of school to the more open and fluid environment in further education colleges can be challenging for a young person. The challenges can be exacerbated when they are also having to make a transition from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to Adult Mental Health Services (AMHS).

Colleges have a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and it is known that there is a greater risk of developing mental health difficulties for those young people – and most FE colleges have an intake from a wide geography, which includes students from multiple local authorities and clinical commissioning group areas. 

Several colleges have already developed very effective whole-college wellbeing programmes and we would like the green paper to provide the opportunity to develop and share this good practice.

At the heart of communities

FE also plays a vital role in not just support but recovery. “I didn’t know what good care was until I came to college,” one student at my own college said.  Parents are also supportive of the role of colleges: “I feel much happier knowing about the support that has been put in place to help my daughter. She finds things difficult and the inclusion meeting we had really helped.”

The prime minister has said in the past that mental health had been "dangerously disregarded" as secondary to physical health and changing that would go "right to the heart of our humanity". Further education colleges have always sat at the heart of communities and work with those communities to build resilience, not just as the local economic engine room for skills development but in recognising the whole young person and their complex needs.

The message is clear: place education at the centre of the solution to help young people thrive. Don’t, and you risk the wellbeing of this country’s future. 

Stuart Rimmer is the principal of East Coast College and chair of the Association of Colleges Mental Health Policy Group

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