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'Mental health is not somebody else's problem'

Colleges are working hard to give mental health support to students, says Association of Colleges chief David Hughes

mental health week AoC colleges FE

Colleges are working hard to give mental health support to students, says Association of Colleges chief David Hughes

There have been countless reports in recent months showing the scale and scope of mental ill-health across the population and at all ages. So it was with little surprise, but a lot of concern, that I saw the latest today, at the start of Mental Health Awareness week.

The headline across the media is that over the past year almost three-quarters of people have at some point felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. The survey, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation and undertaken by YouGov, polled 4,169 adults in the UK in 2018.

Now, it’s not that stress and mental ill-health are one and the same thing, but stress is certainly a contributory factor and something we should be concerned about. Our own surveys, at the Association of Colleges, in the past two years have also provided sobering evidence of the scope of mental ill-health in colleges among young people, adults and staff.

Perhaps we should be thankful that this evidence is now talked about openly and used to inform debate and resource allocations. We have certainly come a long way in recent years in how open we are, comparatively, to talking about mental health and wellbeing.

Times have changed

My first ever volunteering experiences, when I was at university, were working with people in a large Victorian psychiatric hospital and in the so-called halfway-houses of the time. It was in the 1980s, around the time of the so-called care in the community reforms, and conditions were bleak and mental health was heavily medicalised. It was not a time for debate, discussion, understanding and careful thought. All too often mental ill-health was somebody else’s problem.

So, I’m proud of how colleges are responding positively to a growing need amongst our student population. Their work is both preventative and curative. They work hard to build resilience amongst their students by creating a positive culture of mental wellbeing, and building individual confidence and self-awareness. Where it works best, the college approaches this for all of its students and staff, in a culture of support and caring.

The partnership with NHS services in some colleges is also outstanding, with support for students to access additional services seamlessly with college support. Beyond that, there are great examples of colleges being part of the journey to recovery for people experiencing more acute mental health challenges.

Areas for action

Inevitably, though, more needs to be done. The recent government Green Paper on transforming children’s and young people’s mental health provides a good focus for agreeing what needs to happen now. We have five areas of action for the government, the NHS and colleges.

The first two are about age ranges and institutions. We have long argued that NHS child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) should extend to the age of 24. It’s vitally important that young people have ongoing support for their mental health needs as they make the transition from school to adult life.

This is a crunch period of enormous stress that needs continuity of care and oversight. Equally important is that the Green Paper’s emphasis on "whole-school" approaches equates to "whole college" as well. There are more than 700,000 16- to 19-year-olds in colleges and their needs must not be overlooked.

Wellbeing programmes 

The third action is in support of the Green Paper’s recognition that there needs to be a focus not just on mental ill-health but also on mental wellbeing for all young people. Several colleges have very effective whole-college wellbeing programmes but all too often colleges struggle to get this supported by their local NHS services and the good practice is not shared fully.

Fourthly, we want to see more research into the pressures on young people – social media, the pressures of the labour market, the focus on qualification success and resit policy, for instance. We know that the numbers of young people reporting stress is high, but we don’t fully understand why. Until we do, the preventative work will not be adequate.

Finally, we need urgent actions from the government. Colleges are ready to develop their practices and their partnerships on behalf of their students. What they want is an ambition from the government to match theirs – they want to be places where students can build their resilience and confidence and access services seamlessly when and where they need them. They want to be safe havens for people to grow, because achieving that will help to prevent further problems in later life.  

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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