This Monday marked the tenth World Mental Health Day, an opportunity to reflect on the progress made, and the work still to do. And my first reflection is that, while WMHD is an important date in the calendar, supporting mental health is a 365-days-a-year job.
The Mental Health Foundation, a key partner of Good for me, Good for FE, wants “mental health and wellbeing for all to be global priority”. We know that the further education sector is at its best when it thinks globally and acts locally, and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made towards that end.
A few short years ago, mental health support felt marginal, at times even radical. Some saw it as overstepping our territory from the educational to the clinical. But a vanguard of colleges, my own included, pursued this area of support, recognising that our students needed good or at least well-supported mental health to study and achieve.
Hitting the mainstream
Fast forward, and now over 200 colleges have signed the Association of Colleges’ (AoC) mental health charter. Stigma is reduced across the sector. Our literacy around discussing mental health is thoughtful, our understanding deepening and being refined.
There are commitments on college-wide strategies, discussions among senior teams and governors, mental health first aid-trained staff are present in most colleges, with access to counselling, nurses, and tutorials common. Human resources teams have maturing policies, practices, and cultures.
Supporting student and staff mental health has now become mainstream.
One of the people the sector should thank for that is Richard Caulfield at AoC. We worked together with other ‘pioneers’ to connect with the Department for Work and Pensions and the NHS to bring resources into colleges while the education department was playing policy catch-up.
There are now teams at the DfE that have both mental health and further education in their job titles, which is an encouraging development and demonstrates a recognition in policy. Hopefully that will one day transform into funding. Meanwhile, Ofsted now has lines in the handbook about developing learner “resilience and knowledge so that they can keep themselves mentally healthy”.
But the development of mental health in colleges is far from the end. The time is now to move this work from a deficit model to one that is more proactive, and also supports wider sector ambitions. Right now, there are still areas of work in colleges which would benefit from a mental health lens.
The cost of living crisis
External conditions are putting overwhelming pressure on individuals and families, leading to poorer mental health.
That means enhancing support but also creating and maintaining better boundaries between work and life.
Broader sector ambitions around equality, diversity and inclusion mean recognising the lasting mental health effects of discrimination.
We must ensure all employers are supporting students on placement and apprenticeships to the same standard we hold ourselves to.
The sector needs better support, research and training (already positively begun by ETF) to create inclusive and sustainable conditions for its leaders.
There’s scope for big improvements in our recruitment practices for neurodiverse staff and learners.
Increased demand for college services remains largely unfunded, putting pressure on the sector and affecting mental health across the board. We need to lobby!
A united front
Some curriculum areas have been slower to engage with the agenda due to sector culture. (We see you, construction and engineering!) That needs to change.
At East Coast College, we have declared this the ‘year of belonging’. We’re focused on how students might have felt socially, culturally and emotionally excluded following the pandemic. Mental health is the foundation for inclusion, and in turn for academic performance. It should be seen as such.
The sector has so much to be proud of, but challenges remain that are a key priority for us all. So, see you again next World Mental Health Day to celebrate more of our successes!