Student Mental Health
When I started at the Association of Colleges, I visited all the Principals in the North West and was struck by how many of them raised the mental health of students as a key issue. It led to us doing some national research and our findings were startling and worrying:
In order to understand the detail more, not only do we have a national group meeting with the various strands of the health system, in the North West we are developing networks of welfare leads on our sub-regional footprints – to reflect that whilst we have a national health service, the activity and service design is distinctly local. The national work is important, but colleges will know how local issues can be: every college will have students from more than one Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) area or different mental health provider area, this can mean different referral systems, differing access criteria and different services for students dependent on their post code, a real problem for an already stretched service. That is why in the NW we are trying a more local approach.
So what have we learned? Or more importantly what are we going to do? We have made some significant headway and new opportunities are appearing daily. We have four strands of work we are pursuing (they are intertwined though!):
1. Staff training
We are looking at what staff training may be available and appropriate for staff at all levels. At the moment we are looking at what could be used to raise awareness amongst all staff – we intend to identify resources that are available and what effectiveness they may have. For instance MindEd (https://www.minded.org.uk/) has useful free online training that could be for all staff members.
I believe all colleges should have staff trained in Mental Health First Aid - in the same way you must have a first aider on site, it would be useful to use the same approach for mental health. We have already found there are lots of free courses put on by NHS providers and funded by CCGs which means this can be easily accessible in many parts of the country.
We are making links with Health Education England in the NW and they are starting to recognise the college workforce as part of the health system which could mean greater access to staff training at all levels. We are also exploring new initiatives to increase the Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner workforce by seeing where these posts can be located in colleges but in the employ of the mental health provider.
Huge amount of work is underway already to support our students to increase their personal resilience. We need to look at the emerging ‘character education’ agenda and see what opportunities there are to work with public health at the preventative work we can do in colleges. We have seen great stories of work done by colleges across the country and the work that currently stands out is that of Great Yarmouth College and their work with Action for Happiness. A whole college approach taking account of staff and student wellbeing is vital.
3. Good Practice
We are starting to gather good practice stories – but not just about how colleges ‘do it’ but also from the health service perspective, we need the stories to ‘talk to’ the health system in order that it helps shape their services and investment and show how we can help them realise their ambitions by working together.
4. Strategic engagement
We have received a positive response already from CCGs who have Emotional Health & Wellbeing Boards (or similar…) looking at current transformation plans for children and young people’s mental health services and received offers for colleges to sit on these boards where we have contact. We need to engage effectively with the health system – providers, commissioners, strategic boards, such as Health & Wellbeing Boards and the third sector. We are looking at providing local directories of key contacts so colleges can look at who they need to engage with, where and when – in this way we can shape the services of the future.
This is our starter for ten and student mental health is now a priority for the AoC. We are making slow but positive gains with all of the above work. The responsibility lies with no one institution, physical and mental wellbeing is crucial to the success of our students and staff – and our economy and communities, by working together we can improve things significantly.
Regional Director, Association of Colleges