Supporting the mental health of college students

17 May 2019
By Stuart Rimmer

This week further education colleges across the country are signing up to the new Association of Colleges Mental Health Charter supported by Centre for Mental Health and key mental health charities.

50% of mental health problems are established by 14 and 75% by the age of 24. Over 750,000 young people study in colleges each year. And 85% of colleges have reported increases in students disclosing mental health issues.

It is fair to report that colleges have been proactive in this essential work, doing some amazing work in sharing resources and good practice. As chair of the AOC Mental Health Portfolio Group over this period I have been delighted to see that the conversations around student and staff mental health have become deeper and more compelling, and our interventions more sophisticated and steeped in evidence. Commitments by colleges have been impressive and frankly much needed with mental health stats soaring.

85% of colleges reported increases in students disclosing mental health issues 

Collectively, we have made a great response to the increasing pressures of student and staff mental health in colleges. Colleges have proactively guided and influenced the Government’s Mental Health Green paper, locally influenced commissioning by clinical commissioning groups, attracted essential funded programmes to support students, and are participants in key national conversations including the recently publicised Mental Health Taskforce.

There is, however, some inconsistency to college approaches and the need to set a strong national platform backed by local action to build on for the next phase. Now feels the right time to enshrine some of these behaviours into formal commitments in the form of a charter, whilst retaining space for localised response.

The charter is not intended to create some onerous administration framework but seeks to create an underlying set of core commitments that colleges can publicly make to supporting mental health for students and staff. The AOC Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy Group who have led this work wished it to be connected to everyday college life, to ensure that good mental health sufficiently competes for strategic space in a 21st century college, and to recognise this in senior teams and across college governing body agendas.

The group who led this work wished to ensure that good mental health sufficiently competes for strategic space in a 21st century college

The charter also helps to cement a long term commitment to our strategic partners and agencies such as Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, Public Health England and the NHS. It helps us nationally keep pace with schools and universities, both of whom have made similar commitments to develop charters.

Colleges through the charter seek better policy, respect, and challenge to mental health stigma; improved training, support and information in every single college in the country. It encourages better links to sports and physical activity, deeper links to third sector organisations, and a commitment to research with bodies such as Centre for Mental Health. It also encourages improved transitions from school and to university, the necessity of which was highlighted by a recent report by the Centre earlier this year. It is indeed a bold but necessary step.

As nationally increasing pressure on college finances heighten the challenges to everyday college life, supporting good mental health must be seen as a key element in the delivery of academic performance and developing our wider college communities. If we are not careful, this core activity can be easily dismissed as the work of the NHS, other agencies or the third sector. As the Spending Review starts to form, colleges’ commitments to deliver ‘beyond the qualifications’ enhances the compelling case for increasing funding.

Supporting good mental health must be seen as a key element in the delivery of academic performance and developing our wider college communities

Outside of this politic, colleges continue to recognise an acute need both morally and practically to support student mental health. These pressures and demands seem set to continue to rise for our students and, as such, our activity and commitments in colleges should rise with this need.

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

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