Opinion: What else can FE do to support mental health?

One FE teacher explores how colleges can improve the assistance they provide for learners with mental health issues

Carolyn O'connor

Reducing school exclusions

"I wish I was dead." "Nobody cares about me." "What's the point? They said I'd never get a job." "It's OK, I self-harm all the time."

I've heard these and many other similar comments from learners suffering with depression over the years. But they choose us, their teachers, to share in their intimate and disturbing thoughts. We are identified as the shining beacon, or last hope, for many who are spiralling into a void. But we can't do much to help. We can listen, be non-judgemental and signpost them to the services we have been told to offer, following college training, policies and procedures. But it's not enough.

In an ideal world we woud send learners to a dedicated team within the education setting and make sure they receive the right type of support and counselling. We know that young people's mental health is now being raised as a huge concern and it is making regular news headlines. Organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation and Rethink Mental Illness have identified that one in 10 young people suffer from depression. If you go on to the Young Minds website, you can also see more alarming statistics for young people. It's good to have these numbers, but my concern is that the situation clearly isn't getting any better for our young people.

'We need to be proactive'

The government is planning to introduce a mental health waiting time target, as early treatment can make a big difference in helping young sufferers. But this won't be for another four years.

A typical FE college can offer learners with mental health issues in-house counselling with qualified counsellors, and a learner support area with a range of information on services they can access. The only problem is that we can't do anything beyond the college grounds.

How do we fix this? Reducing waiting times for access to counselling services would be a big help – but that won’t happen overnight. I believe that we need to be looking towards proactive rather than reactive strategies.

Teachers deal with this on a daily basis. Therefore, I think it's time we got more support when dealing with situations. In FE (and in other educational settings) learners will tell you things you never asked to hear about and you are left picking up the pieces, following safeguarding protocol. Then you go home worrying about the learner concerned. We need help too. After all, counsellors get counselling, so why don’t we?

Every educational setting must have a dedicated team to support these learners. If the learners (and sometimes their families) have been identified at risk, then ensure the correct support is given straight away. Too often delays can happen because of red tape, or because care services are stretched, and sadly I have seen the impact it has on families and well as the learners.

Someone once told me that eventually I'd get used to dealing with learners like this and that I'd learn to "switch off". The truth is, I'd rather have a better care system in place for these learners than desensitise myself from their problems. Which would you prefer?

Carolyn O'Connor is an FE teacher and tweets at @clyn40 

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Carolyn O'connor

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