'It has never been more important to be proactive about mental health'

Colleges must create and sustain initiatives to combat the rise in mental health issues among students, one principal writes

Stuart Rimmer

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I read with interest the TES article on mental health issues in colleges, and was saddened by the stories profiled on Panorama last week, particularly as they relate to Norfolk and Suffolk. Great Yarmouth College has had a rise of 156 per cent in mental health-specific referrals and a 189 per cent increase in self-harming behaviours in 2015-16. Never has it been more important to be proactive in colleges. We must encourage self-reflection and diagnosis, develop wellbeing activities and have early intervention initiatives and partnership support in place for our students. 

I have been extolling the virtues of this approach at our college and across the region since I arrived at Great Yarmouth in 2014. Statistics show that we have a particular challenge in Great Yarmouth, with approximately 1,120 young people estimated to have a mental health condition and a similar number for emotional and behavioural problems. In addition, the Great Yarmouth and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group has the highest percentage of young people (aged 0-17) self-harming per 100,000 population. With more than 1,000 16- to 18-year-olds attending our college each year, I believe we must play our part in preventing these issues from escalating and work closely with mental health and other professionals to reverse this worrying trend.

It is right to call on "local NHS mental health services to develop closer relationships with colleges". But, equally, colleges have a part to play in reaching out to these services (and others) and investing time and effort in initiatives that will bring about positive change. At Great Yarmouth College we have established and developed links with Mind and Norfolk and Waveney Wellbeing. Not only are we able to access their services and support for our students, but their training is now part of our staff CPD programme and our senior leadership team have all recently completed their Mental Health First Aid Certificate. Early recognition and intervention is key, backed up by a programme of wellbeing activities and counselling support where required.

What we've done to support mental health

  • Our Progression and Wellbeing Programme is taught across the curriculum within tutorials, self-directed study and personal development time. It has four mandatory elements: building positive communities; wellbeing and action for happiness; progression; and personal safety (including e-safety). Resources are coordinated by the college’s wellbeing coordinator and learning services team.
  • Referrals in 2016-17 have been made as a direct result of our programme – for example, e-safety linked to child sexual exploitation, domestic and relationship abuse, Prevent-related vulnerabilities. Students' union members and student ambassadors undertake the Action for Happiness training to supporting mentoring peers.
  • On campus, our University of Suffolk counselling degree students provide counselling for FE students over 18 years old, reducing waiting times and providing experience.
  • We have increased our partnership case work with mental health practitioners from Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust to support students. Several students are seen at Great Yarmouth College by their mental health practitioners to minimise disruption to learning and to allow students to be seen in an environment they feel comfortable with.
  • Eating disorders and self-harming behaviour disclosures have increased over the past two years, resulting in additional training for staff to support students. The onsite gym membership has increased following promotion of healthy lifestyles and this is offered to students as part of positive mental health actions. The college eating areas promote healthy options and student feedback informs menus and meal deals by regular forums.

Early intervention

It is true that on occasion we have no choice but to refer students in crisis to A&E, but our objective is to intervene (and refer where appropriate) before this point. By working with our local mental health and community partners on prevention and early recognition, I believe we can positively influence our students’ wellbeing, development and outcomes. 

Unsurprisingly this has contributed to our rise in referrals recently but better to refer through early diagnosis than allow our students to reach crisis point – on a positive note our referrals to A&E have actually reduced in number despite the increase in referrals overall. 

Building capacity in our young people to become more aware of their own mental health and understand positive interventions is one of the most vital things our college does today, and I am proud to be working at a national level with the Association of Colleges to bring together a coherent strategy for the sector. But we, and others, need more direct funding to support this crisis and sustain our initiatives if we are to arrest or reverse this worrying rise in mental health issues among our students.

Stuart Rimmer is chief executive and principal of Great Yarmouth College

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Stuart Rimmer

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