Almost 75 per cent of further education colleges referred students with mental health issues to an A&E department in the last academic year, a survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) reveals.
The survey, conducted in November, asked members about students with mental health conditions. Some 85 per cent of colleges reported an increase in students with disclosed mental health issues in the past three years, and 81 per cent said they had significant numbers of learners with undisclosed mental health difficulties.
Only 40 per cent of colleges were able to support a full-time counsellor or mental health worker on campus. And nearly half (48 per cent) said their relationship with local clinical commissioning groups was "non-existent".
The AoC is calling on local NHS mental health services teams to develop closer relationships with colleges to provide better support to learners.
'Deeply disturbing findings' for mental health
Ian Ashman, president of the AoC, said: "Accident and emergency units are overloaded and overcrowded and it is simply not acceptable that colleges are forced to refer so many students to these services.
"Colleges don’t want to add to the current problems A&E services are experiencing, but they are sometimes left with no choice because there is a lack of joined-up, specialist support for young people in the community."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: "The findings in AoC’s research are deeply disturbing, although unsurprising. Young people are under increasing pressure and the mental health of those entering FE colleges will not have been helped by narrowing the school curriculum and by forcing them to jump through the hoops of endless testing.
"Budget cuts, restructures and the area reviews have also made it harder for young people to access the provision they need at college. FE teachers, lecturers and support staff want to do everything they can to help their students with mental health problems, and they have considerable expertise in this area. However, as the AoC’s research shows, funding cuts to the sector by this and the last government, means that the support simply cannot be provided. Young people are therefore dealt a double blow with increasing mental health problems along with the support for these issues dwindling."
Mr Ashman has called for his time as president of the AoC to be "the year of mental health" in the sector.