Mental health is in crisis, but colleges are responding

17,500 college students are regularly seeking mental health support, but colleges are rising to the challenge

Kate Parker

Mental health is in crisis - and colleges are responding, says Kate Parker

17,500. That, according to freedom of information data received by Tes, is how many college students seek mental health support on a regular basis in England. It’s not the number who have received a one-off session, a few here and there, or support on a sporadic basis throughout the year.

It’s 17,500 students who week in, week out, are asking for help. And actually, that’s data from just a third of England’s colleges. The number across all colleges in England could be double or triple that number.

Should this data terrify us? Or should we feel encouraged that so many students feel comfortable enough to reach out?  

News: 17k college students receive regular counselling

Background: Pupils' 'appalling' Camhs postcode lottery

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Personally, I think that both feelings are justified. 

The statistics are undoubtedly sobering. According to charity Mind, one in four people in the UK experiences mental health issues. More than half of instances of mental ill-health start by the age of 15, and 75 per cent start by 18. Suicide is the most common cause of death for those aged between 15 and 34. 

And things are getting worse. When I talked to principals and mental health experts about the data we obtained through FOI, they all said the same: there’s a continual year-on-year rise in the number of students experiencing mental ill-health in our colleges.

Mental health support in colleges

It doesn’t take a genius to work out why. Immense pressure on final exams, the general trials and tribulations of growing up and the challenges that come with that, adverse childhood experiences, and, of course, the never-ending, all-consuming, 24-hour social media cycle. 

One principal jokingly said that when he was at school, he would walk to the phone box to ring his friends, arrange a time to meet and that would be that. Even 10 years ago, when I started college, there was no Instagram, no Snapchat, no WhatsApp. 

Now, students can be dropped from a WhatsApp group chat in a second, excluded from a friendship group in just a click of a button. Instagram shows students what they *should* look like, where they *should* be visiting and what clothes they *should* be buying. It must be exhausting. 

But there is something we should be grateful for. Many students may be suffering – but at least they’re willing to talk about. There’s a whole language now around mental health, along with an increasing level of awareness. Who would have thought, 20, even 10 years ago, that by 2020, most colleges would not only have a first-aider but a mental health first-aider, too?

There’s always a lot of talk around about the importance of valuing mental health as much as physical health – and I think that, actually, we are at a place where that is finally beginning to ring true. 

Nevertheless, watching the figures come in from college after college, stating that 90, 150, 200 of their students needed regular counselling, was unsettling. That’s just those who seek help within the college walls. According to the data, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) have also risen by 100 per cent in the past three years. Given the state of Camhs – the Education Policy Institute think tank report that came out a few weeks ago is a harrowing read – there’s no guarantee that a referral equals appropriate, and most importantly, quick action. 

It’s a bleak, bleak picture. 

Rising to the challenge

There is some light in this darkness, however. We asked colleges how many members of staff they had dedicated to mental health, either as their full-time role – for example, a college counsellor or college group mental health lead – or as part of their role. The response was uplifting – since 2016, the number of dedicated staff has doubled, from 372 to 914. 

And when it comes to the percentage increase in the number of staff who are either mental health first-aiders or have had mental health awareness training, the picture is even more encouraging: a massive 713 per cent rise.

The message from colleges is clear: we recognise this crisis and we’re doing all we can to make sure the necessary support is in place for our students. 

A range of colleges told me that they had made a conscious and active decision to make sure that every single staff member had some form of mental health training; others were working towards that and were aiming for that to be the case by 2021.

Activate Learning regularly invites charities like Mind or the Samaritans to deliver workshops to students. Bolton College has enlisted the help of AI, introducing a chatbot, Ada, which can recognise trigger words or phrases that students use and alert staff.  Cambridge Regional College has an online 24-hour hub that students can access that offers support and wellbeing resources. This is particularly crucial for apprentices who may not attend the college daily. 

As Richard Caulfield, the Association of Colleges' area director for the North West and mental health lead, said: “It is a tsunami, but the sector has never been complacent.”

So, thank you. Thank you to every single member of staff who has put their hand up for mental health training. Thank you to everyone who has then made use of that training and provided their students with a shoulder to cry on. a hand to hold and a sympathetic ear. Thank you to all the college leaders who impressed upon their community the importance of championing good mental health, and intervened when things go wrong. 

There is a crisis. It is a tsunami. But if we can ensure that the provision is in place, that the support is there, it will make all the difference to those who matter most: our students.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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