It wasn’t too long ago that talking about mental health issues was a taboo subject. It was rarely discussed publicly and when it was there were always negative connotations. Yet around one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. There has certainly been a shift over the last couple of years with more public figures speaking about the struggles they’ve faced. This has impacted on the political arena, with Theresa May announcing a review of the Mental Health Act during her speech to the Conservative Party conference.
The changing perception and the increased dialogue is a good start. But more is needed to make a real impact on the lives of people. As it’s World Mental Health Day, today is a great opportunity to start that conversation. Some relatively small changes will make a big difference to people’s lives and colleges are the right place to start.
Colleges educate and train more than 2 million people each year, including more than 700,000 16- to 18-year-olds. Across the country, there are great examples of colleges who are already supporting their students. Hugh Baird College, for example. The college has benefited from establishing a local strategic partnership with their local service provider, Mersey Care. They have worked together and received £3.9 million worth of funding from the combined authority to build state of the art training facilities, based on their "Life Rooms" concept. In my own college, East Coast, we recently brought together academics, the voluntary and education sectors and health practitioners to develop innovative solutions to mental health issues. As a result, we now have a seat at the table with the commissioning board that will make sure college students are represented on a strategic level.
'We need to be working together'
At a more practical level, staff in 22 colleges in the North West have benefitted from mental health first aid training, supported by the Education and Training Foundation. Work is already taking place on how we can continue to assess what effective training and support for staff looks like.
Yet more can be done. This is the reason the Association of Colleges’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy Group was established. The group brings together colleges from across the country to work on how the challenge can be tackled. This is made even stronger with the representation on the group from Public Health England, the Department for Education and NHS England. This collaboration highlights an important issue – mental health cannot be tackled in isolation. We need to be working together to provide the best support for young people.
There are areas we need to focus on and push government, agencies and colleges to act in unison. These include:
- Removing artificial barriers from child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and allowing support for young people up to the age of 25. There also needs to be a national service level standards set for CAMHS to avoid the disparity of the "postcode lottery" reported by colleges.
- Improved information sharing in the transition between school and college and college and university, so that students with known needs can access support from day one.
- A commitment to workforce development which includes colleges to ensure that staff can identify warning signs and know what to do. Basic mental health awareness should be built into all initial teacher training programmes and there should be support for programmes such as mental health first aid in both schools and colleges. This should be supported by placing funded mental health clinicians directly within educational settings to support students at their point of need.
- Investment in mental health support, with ring fenced funding to support local delivery. Funding should also be allocated for CAMHS local transformation plans, which must involve local colleges in both planning and delivery.
There isn’t a quick fix. But as the awareness, understanding and rhetoric grows around mental health, we need to ensure there is action taken. On World Mental Health Day, our message is simple – the right resources, training and direction in colleges will have a long-term, positive impact on so many people. Without it, we risk damaging future generations.