Colleges are reporting more suicides and eating disorders – they need better support now, writes Richard Caulfield
Over a year ago we published our mental health survey, with stark results. Now, all the feedback we have from the first term of 2021-22 is that the challenge is increasing. It’s driven by more learners presenting with mental health problems and the complexity of the issues they are facing.
Anecdotally we are hearing from a number of colleges that more students are attempting suicide, and that eating disorders are on the rise. The NHS is now struggling to meet demand for eating disorder services.
With over 190 colleges signed up to the AoC mental health charter there is strong commitment within the sector to support the mental health and wellbeing of learners and staff.
But there is a limit to the resource that colleges can allocate to deal with the volume of issues, and a limit to employing enough staff with the expertise to support the most complex needs.
Many colleges have been extremely positive about the rollout of the government’s mental health support teams and the work driven by the Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision green paper.
Colleges such as South Thames College group have been quick to praise the partnership and support from the trailblazer. But this support will only reach 35 per cent of schools and colleges under the current plans. What does this mean for the 65 per cent of settings who miss out?
We need to ensure all settings have access to these additional resources.
Other areas have focused on further education too. In Greater Manchester, where health monies are devolved, there has been a significant investment in mental health over the past three years, allowing colleges to develop services to test new ideas.
In the first year of the project, Hopwood Hall and Bolton College both set about becoming trauma-informed colleges. Another six have now started to implement a trauma-informed approach, including the specialist college, Bridge College. The feedback has been hugely positive.
Other work has included a successful partnership with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapists (BACP) to develop a programme of training in supervision skills. This is so that staff dealing with the growing number of safeguarding issues can be supported appropriately.
What about the 65% of settings missing out?
Of course, prevention is better than cure and colleges are increasingly looking for support that can help students and staff to manage their own mental health and wellbeing too, as well as support services.
I am looking forward to seeing what we can learn from tools such as the Fika app (which supports student mental fitness) that many colleges, supported by NCFE, have been implementing this year. Like other initiatives, it will not be a golden bullet, rather another tool in the box for colleges to utilise.
We are also seeing a growing interest in social prescribing, which is where individuals are referred to social support in the community, rather than, or alongside, medical intervention. The Office for Students has recently funded a social prescribing project in Merseyside and Lancashire, and several other colleges are going down this route with local partners.
There is also synergy with this approach with Good For Me, Good For FE, the volunteering projectled by London South East Colleges, Loughborough College and East Coast College, aiming to boost mental health. This has huge potential if we can increase engagement from NHS-funded link workers with colleges.
Capacity remains the biggest challenge. Through AoC, we can help colleges access lots of support from the Charlie Waller Trust and elsewhere. However, many of the initiatives I’ve mentioned cannot be implemented without the capacity.
As we begin 2022, and government and policymakers plan the next phases of education recovery, mental health support must be at the heart of any post-16 strategy. Colleges must be funded to provide the support students and staff deserve and need.