Be literate about it

10th October 2003 at 01:00
In Mental Health Week, John Cairney reports on a project that recognises the key role of colleges

A major initiative to raise awareness of the "taboo" subject of mental health in Scottish colleges will start in the new year.

As part of the Scottish Executive's health and social justice strategy, four pilot schemes to train FE personnel in "mental health first aid" (MHFA) will start in January with the aim of offering courses from next autumn.

Following the success of a five-day course for representatives from across the public and voluntary sectors, Sandy Maclean, project officer with the Scottish Further Education Unit's inclusion team, has been asked to evaluate the pilots and assess their relevance for FE generally.

Ms Maclean, one of 13 trained instructors in MHFA, said the courses would be adapted from initiatives in Australia where approaches to mental health literacy have been receiving international recognition. Betty Kitchener, instigator of the Australian course, visited Scotland earlier this year at the invitation of the Executive to deliver two seminars and returned to train the first instructors.

"Mental illness is still not widely understood," Ms Maclean said. "It is a complex and sensitive area which covers a huge spectrum ranging from anxiety and depression to psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder.

"People with mental health problems also suffer from stigma associated with the label of 'mental illness' based largely on fear of the unknown and this understandably leads to a natural reluctance on the part of students to 'disclose'."

Already some colleges have shown particular interest. "Many lecturers are working with students experiencing some degree of mental distress but may be unsure how to support them effectively."

Ms Maclean acknowledges that staff are also concerned about their obligations under new disability legislation. The law says that an institution cannot be held to have unlawfully discriminated against a student if it could not have known that a student was disabled. But it also advises "an open and supportive culture in which students feel comfortable about disclosing their disabilities".

With mental health problems often arising between the ages of 16 and 24, and the proportion of those affected in this age group estimated to be significantly higher than the one in four figure for the general population, colleges are ideally placed to perform a key role.

The pilot activities will be in four parts. The first course will be run at the Scottish Further Education Unit at the end of January for the inclusion team, others within the unit and those within the sector who have extensive experience of supporting students.

This will be followed by a "refined course" at the end of March which will be open to a random audience. During February and early March two colleges will pilot courses to assess interest, viability and relevance. A one-day event will be held later in the year to provide feedback on the pilot activities and outcomes, particularly for remote colleges.

Mr Maclean is in no doubt about the relevance of the project. "Since it is during the period of transition from school to further and higher education that students may experience their first episode of mental distress which can lead on to more serious mental health difficulties, it is vital that we move towards a more positive mental health agenda in our colleges.

"MHFA has already generated a great deal of interest in the sector and this intervention will greatly contribute to the quality of the learning and teaching experience within FE."

Further information is available at www.mhfa.com.au

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