How can colleges best support students with their mental health?

Good mental health support is vital and can be improved by sharing good practice, says Ian Ashman.

The Association of Colleges’ 2015 survey on mental health in colleges asked members about changes in the incidence of mental health issues amongst students. The intelligence provided by principals was startling.

Two thirds said that the number of students with mental health difficulties had ‘significantly increased’ in the past three years, with a further 20 per cent saying they had ‘slightly increased’. What is perhaps more of a concern is that 75 per cent felt their college had ‘significant numbers’ of students with undisclosed mental health difficulties. Social media was highlighted as the major reason for the increase, with many also quoting exam and financial pressures.

Though the rise is worrying, the fact is that colleges have a long and proud history of working with students who have particular needs or challenges. In fact, many colleges have been providing support on mental health issues for years.

Mental health support has literally been the difference between life and death

Hackney Community College is an example of this long-running support. It has won the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education and numerous other awards for its mental health education and advice service, which has also featured strongly in four consecutive Ofsted reports.

At its heart, the service has two well-qualified and experienced advisers. One post is funded through the college’s student support budget and the other through a long-standing agreement with its acute mental health trust, helping service users to access education and supporting progress into employment. The latter recognises the strong therapeutic value of participation in education.

These services have been developed through strong local partnerships and help equip all staff with the skills needed to support students.

The AoC is developing and sharing other examples of good practice in particular colleges, and will be doing more in this area during the coming year, including at its SEND Conference on December 14.

Examples include City of Liverpool College, where the clinical commissioning group has funded two college-based mental health adviser posts; Highbury College in Portsmouth with its close links with the CCG; and Birmingham, where colleges encouraged the CCG to move to commission services for 16-25s. This helps to ensure students don’t lose out when they move into adult services at the age of 19.

The AoC survey supported my own experience, that there are helpful features of a strong approach to mental health within colleges.

Developing a whole-college approach to wellbeing, as well as having clear policies and systems in place to support the mental health of students and staff, is considered to be the most effective approach, ensuring that welfare forms a part of all students’ tutorial programmes. This can also create opportunities for providing additional
sessions such as dealing with stress and examinations.

Mental health support has literally been the difference between life and death

A dedicated staff member for mental health or a counsellor with specific training, who can provide one-to-one and group support to students, means there is always somewhere to turn. They can also run mental health awareness and skills training for staff.

It is through good strategic relationships with health commissioners and mental health service providers that colleges are able to provide the support students need.

AoC is making this a priority both nationally and locally. For example, my first formal meeting as president elect was with ministers and officials of the Departments of Health and Education on this issue. Nationally we have gained representation on the DoH’s Children and Young People Stakeholder forum, to press the case for colleges.

Locally we need to increase the representation of colleges on local stakeholder boards and engage with directors of public health, to ensure that services are shaped to the needs of our students, especially as they move between children’s and adult services.

I know from personal experience the vital work colleges do in this area. On more than one occasion a student has told me that the mental health support provided by the college has literally been the difference between life and death.

This is surely a good enough reason to make this a priority for all of us.


Mental health will be one of the themes at the AoC Annual Conference (15-17 November).

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