To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week, Sarah-Louise Neesam explains how West Suffolk College has developed and implements a student welfare strategy

I have been a student welfare manager for 17 years, a long period with which to watch changes in the demands made on the welfare service at West Suffolk College.

Ten years ago, after seeing an increase in students presenting with poor mental health and a number of attempted suicides, we began to develop the mental health policies that we use today.

Mental health support is now central to our student welfare strategy – which is based upon the principle of understanding students in a holistic way. For example, we ask them about their lives, what they enjoy, who they live with, and what their hopes and dreams are. We have had a food bank for about 10 years and more recently, have made links with the food redistribution charity Fare Share. We work closely with students’ external support teams and were the first college in Suffolk to gain the gold award from Suffolk Young Adult Carers.

Here are some aspects of our strategy.

How we identify mental health support needs

Students indicate if they have a mental health condition when they start at the college. These students are invited for a welfare assessment, which was developed with an NHS primary mental health worker around 10 years ago. The welfare assessment asks questions about the student’s mental health history and determines whether their mental health needs are low, medium or high risk.

How we support students

Following the welfare assessment, we liaise with external services such as GPs and drug counselling services, which helps to inform internal support needs. Students are fully involved, and remain firmly in control of what happens to them.

Given the high demand on welfare services, students who are at a low risk are monitored and looked after by personal support tutors, and those who are medium or high risk are supported by the student welfare team.

How our mental health strategy has improved outcomes

Our student welfare strategy and other policies have enabled us to successfully identify and respond to students’ mental health needs, and the data speaks to our strategy. Of the 1,517 learners seen by welfare advisers in the 2016-17 academic year, 94 per cent remained in learning at the end of the academic year. Of those who received counselling, 99.5 per cent remained in learning. Ninety per cent of our children in care remain in learning.

How we support our staff

Mental health provision is built into staff training and professional development strategies, and is targeted based on data. To this end, mental health first aid training has been delivered not only to personal support tutors and the welfare team, but also to those teaching staff delivering courses to high numbers of pupils with mental health problems.

How other colleges can  implement these learnings

1) Develop expertise: Our student welfare staff include individuals former social workers and police officers, who bring a wealth of knowledge to the team. We also currently have two young apprentices who are able to support the advisers in conducting welfare assessments. We think that investing in young people and training the next generation of support workers is important.

2) Use resources efficiently: The college has reduced costs by asking external organisations to deliver training en masse, instead of sending staff to external courses.

3) Communicate: Collaborative working, increasing staff members’ understanding of students’ needs and improving the support available for students.

4) Adapt: Ensure that policies are flexible and evolve. The team have adapted their welfare strategy in light of emerging needs, as well as on the basis of new information and training.

I wouldn’t have stayed in this role if I didn’t enjoy it. Each day is different: exciting, challenging and rewarding. You get the opportunity to meet the most amazing young people, their families and support workers and plot a way forward for the individual. What more could anyone want from their work?

Sarah-Louise Neesam is the student welfare manager at West Suffolk College

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