Urgent calls have been made by colleges for more resources to support student mental health after a new survey found nine in ten colleges reported attempted suicide by learners in the last year.
The Association of Colleges’ 2023 mental health survey found that more than 80 per cent of colleges had referred a learner to A&E as a result of mental health needs, as 95 per cent of colleges say they have seen an increase in mental health disclosures among their 16 to 18 students.
The report said that colleges face a “tsunami of need” as demand for wellbeing services soared, but praised the efforts of the sector to bolster measures in recent years with more mental health policies, boosted training for staff and counselling provision for learners.
The survey published this week gathered views from 82 general FE colleges, 13 sixth form colleges, six specialist colleges and four from academies and independent specialist colleges. It found that nine in ten colleges were aware of a learner or learners who had attempted suicide in the last 12 months.
It reported that 70 per cent of the 79 respondents to that question had seen an increase in attempts, which totalled 1,357 in the last year.
The report said it demonstrated the need to expand suicide first aid training, with only 61 per cent of colleges citing that as part of their staff development programme and a third of colleges not being engaged in the local suicide prevention plan.
Elsewhere, eight in ten colleges had made an A&E referral for a learner’s mental health in the last year – 560 in total, or nine referrals per provider average.
It comes amid a backdrop of increasing mental health concerns as 95 per cent reported a slight or significant increase in 16 to 18 learners disclosing a mental health need and 82 per cent of colleges saying a significant number of students were experiencing mental health needs without a formal disclosure.
According to the survey, the biggest drivers of student mental health difficulties were circumstances at home (90 per cent), Covid-19 (85 per cent), social media (77 per cent) and gender identity (72 per cent).
Other reasons reported included exam stress, cost of living, money worries, employment, and drugs and alcohol.
Olly Parker, head of external affairs at mental health charity YoungMinds, said: “It is concerning that so many students are struggling with their mental health and that there has been an increase in those reaching crisis. We know from speaking to young people that the last year has been one of the most challenging for this age group, emerging from the pandemic to more limited prospects for their futures, an increase in academic pressure to catch up on lost learning, and a cost of living crisis.”
The organisation has called on the government to commit to a four-week waiting time to ensure young people do not get worse while waiting for help.
The AoC’s report, however, found that despite tight finances in the sector, colleges had been making huge efforts to provide support.
It said that 90 per cent had appointed senior mental health leads, three quarters had dedicated mental health policies for students and staff, 100 per cent were running wellbeing sessions for students, 86 per cent had delivered general mental health awareness training for staff and 96 per cent had trained mental health first aiders.
The findings said that 68 per cent of respondents were now employing their own counsellors (on average two part time and one full time counsellor per provider) while a further 36 per cent bought in counselling support from external organisations.
Stuart Rimmer, chief executive of East Coast College and chair of the AoC’s mental health and wellbeing policy group, said: “It does paint a stark picture of the position of colleges right now, and in the context of that the underfunding of the broad aspects of the public sector.
“The issues presenting to colleges are increasing in volume and the issues are becoming more acute for colleges. The reality is that this is now sucking a huge amount of resource in colleges which fundamentally we are not paid for.”
Rimmer said ringfenced funding for mental health measures would be helpful, but praised the efforts of colleges.
He added: “If colleges did not do this work, there would be cause to worry gravely for the mental health outcomes of many displaced or forgotten sections of society now supported by their local college.”
Jen Hope, mental health policy lead at the AoC, said: “Faced with huge disruption, budget restraints and massive uncertainty, colleges have worked hard during these challenging times to support students with their mental health and wellbeing.”
In addition, staff mental health concerns were raised as 62 per cent of colleges reported an increase in staff accessing mental health services. Recurrence of existing mental health issues and high workloads were the two biggest reasons given for those, with others including Covid-19, caring duties, cost of living fears and job uncertainty.
The report said there was a lack of specialist support and timely access to it in both colleges and the wider community health services, while the lack of funding was impacting the overall effectiveness of support measures.
The report referenced the government’s announcement in January that it would pump £150 million by April 2025 into 150 new urgent and emergency mental health facilities, but said that while this will help it “does not go far enough”.
The AoC’s commitments in the report included dedicated research on learner mental health, regular reporting on emerging issues, helping champion and resource staff development opportunities, and developing dedicated resources and peer-networking.
That is set to include “a suite of resources, lesson plans, workshops and awareness campaigns aimed at learners”.
It has called on government to ensure funding reaches further education providers and continued review of data around the impacts of key concerns such as Covid-19 and cost of living worries.
Colleges have been urged to conduct regular surveys of staff and learners to build an evidence base, broaden staff development to include areas such as suicide awareness training, sign the AoC’s mental health charter and engage with local health services.
Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist and chief executive and founder of youth mental health charity stem4 said that only a third of young people were able to access early intervention support, meaning that often by the time students reach college their difficulties are more severe.
Krause said that colleges “should be applauded for making mental health and wellbeing a priority,” and added: “If we really want to turn the tide of mental ill health in this young generation, urgent action is needed in the form of more effective evidence-based early mental health interventions.
“And this requires meaningful investment in secondary care and access to effective mental health support in every school, college, and university across the UK, as well as specialist mental health practitioners supporting primary care providers.”