Claire Maxwell and Ian Warwick highlight some ways in which student mental health is being addressed in colleges of further education

The 14-19 Education and Skills white paper and initiatives such as the Increased Flexibility for 14-16-Year-Olds Programme have meant that colleges of further education are working with greater numbers of young people from a wider range of backgrounds.

Over the last 25 years, there has been an increase in reported behavioural and emotional problems among children and young people. Students in higher education have been found to have increased numbers of mental health problems compared to age-matched controls and there is little reason to believe that students entering further education will experience fewer mental health problems than those in higher education. While a focus on the promotion of mental health and emotional wellbeing can be found in a number of best practice guides and publications aimed at primary and secondary schools, little is known about what colleges of further education are doing in this area.

Here, we report on selected findings from an exploratory study which set out to identify how colleges are attempting to meet the mental health needs of their younger students (those aged 19 and under). We also describe some examples of promising practice.

For the research, we interviewed 18 key informants (drawn from further education and mental health bodies), carried out a survey of 150 FE colleges (56 questionnaires were returned) and conducted five case studies of FE colleges which, according to the key informants, were making particular efforts to provide mental health support services for their students.

Why promote mental health?

Promoting students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing has been argued to support educational engagement, improve behaviour and attendance and help raise attainment. A number of those interviewed indicated that the Disability Discrimination Act (Part 4) was encouraging colleges to provide a more inclusive, accessible environment for students with mental health problems. Two of the case study colleges visited had collected evidence which supported the case for investing in the promotion of student mental health:

  • In one college, for example, 98% of students with complex needs who were in contact with the student support team had remained on their courses. Of the 28 young people who had become homeless in the last year, all had stayed on at college.
  • In another college, student attainment was said to be improving every year, and exclusions were at an all-time low. Furthermore, students with multiple difficulties had been found to have almost the same retention rate as the overall college average.

The experience of the five case study colleges suggested that effective promotion of positive mental health and emotional wellbeing was linked to a holistic, multi-layered system of support for students. This could include:

  • personal tutor systems
  • learning support programmes (learning assistants, extra tuition)
  • mentors
  • counselling service
  • health drop-ins (sexual health clinic with a nurse, drugs support drop-in)
  • health awareness events (stop smoking initiatives, anti-bullying campaigns)
  • group work (on, for example, anger management, relationship violence)
  • information about both college and external sources of support (in college diaries for instance)
  • an active student union (organising social events, outings, representing student views to senior management)
  • a range of places to spend free time (quiet spaces, student cafés, student common rooms).

Many respondents stressed that it was important to offer students a range of support services so that they had a degree of choice.

Three colleges have been selected to further illustrate the various ways in which colleges across England are trying to promote student mental health and wellbeing.

College one – services built around a personal tutor system

This college’s guiding principle was to foster student learning and success ‘readiness’. At the heart of its provision was a personal tutor system – where tutors ran weekly group tutorial sessions (in which PSHE was also taught), but also offered individual students two one-to-one tutorials a term.  Students’ health and wellbeing was a focus in both the weekly tutorials as well as the one-to-one tutorials. If a tutor or student felt more support was required they could access one of the following:

  • learning support offered in designated centres or within lessons
  • advice and guidance on housing and financial issues
  • a counsellor
  • the mental health coordinator (for bi-weekly practical support)
  • a Connexions personal adviser based in college
  • a peer mentor or ‘study buddy’
  • the Drugs Education Team or Young Fathers’ Project (external organisations which ran regular sessions in college)
  • a member of the student union executive.

College two – a commitment to young people with mental health difficulties is laid out in the college’s strategic plan

One of this college’s strategic objectives was to promote a culture of equality and diversity. With this strategic commitment in mind, the college had increased core funding for specialist posts to include a student services manager, mental health manager and equality, diversity and inclusion coordinator. 

The student services manager was responsible for:

  • the young people’s support team – run by trained youth workers who had a daily drop-in, offered one-to-one support for students either on or off the college site, ran small group work sessions on issues such as domestic violence, contributed to the college PSHE programme, and facilitated a sexual health peer education programme for local schools which FE students delivered
  • guidance, advice and counselling service – where students could get advice on financial, housing and career options, as well as see a counsellor
  • the college nurse – who ran a weekly sexual health clinic, was available to discuss other health issues on a one-to-one basis, and contributed to the PSHE programme.

A mental health support team offered support to younger and older students with mental health problems to enable them to return to, and remain in, education. The workers were specialist mental health practitioners employed by the college, and also ran mental health awareness training for college staff and students. Finally, the equality, diversity and inclusion coordinator’s responsibilities included running termly ‘themed weeks’ (covering issues such as bullying, disability, diversity) and developing materials for tutors to use in PSHE tutorials.

College three – a partnership between Connexions, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and the college

The third college, while offering a number of similar services, had also developed stronger partnerships with external organisations. The tutorial system formed the core provision offered to all students in the form of group and one-to-one contact time. However, at this college, each faculty had a group of tutor managers whose responsibility was to support course tutors by: giving guidance on managing students’ learning and support needs; developing tutorial materials; taking on students with particular difficulties; and working with local schools to ensure the college received information on students’ needs before they began their FE course.

Tutors and tutor managers could approach the learning support service if an individual student needed a learning support assistant, or if the tutor required some guidance. The learning support service had staff who specialised in working with students with learning disabilities, those with mental health problems, and young people with emotional and/or behavioural difficulties. One member of the learning support service was also assigned to each faculty to act as a point of contact and guidance.

Tutors and tutor managers could also refer students to the guidance and advice service for support around finances, transport, housing and careers, or the counselling service. One further college-funded post, a health promotion adviser with expertise in sexual health and drugs education, contributed to the group tutorial programme.

However, one key feature of this college’s provision for students was the range of externally-funded posts in place:

  • a substance misuse adviser (funded through the local area drugs and alcohol strategy) who held a small caseload of students with substance misuse problems, as well as contributing to the tutorial programme and running staff training
  • a Connexions intensive support personal adviser (funded by the Connexions service) who supported up to 16 students a week, focusing on those dealing with mental health, housing, family relationship, teenage parenthood or substance use difficulties
  • a mental health personal adviser (jointly funded by Connexions and CAMHS) who specialised in supporting students with mental health problems
  • a local young adults’ mental health adviser (externally funded and based in the local mental health team) who took on students directly referred by the above workers if emergency or significant mental health issues were identified, and provided clinical supervision to the Connexions and mental health personal advisers
  • a housing and homeless mediation worker who focused on trying to prevent homelessness due to relationship difficulties between a student and his or her carers/parents.

Although we found promising practice in the case study colleges with regard to supporting students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing, awareness of mental health needs and willingness to address them was very variable among the 56 colleges that responded to our questionnaire. Survey respondents (usually the student support manager) in 73% of these colleges stated that their college was not committed to supporting students experiencing mental health difficulties. Moreover, 63% felt there was a lack of commitment in the college to mental health promotion more generally.

How might the findings from this study contribute to the way teachers, support workers and managers in colleges of further education support students at risk of, or experiencing, mental health problems? Although there was a degree of difference in the support structures in colleges, five key themes emerged as elements of ‘promising practice’:

1. Offering students a range of support services – including those related to learning study support as well as emotional support. This was felt by respondents to be central to ensuring that young people could choose the type of support they felt was most relevant to them. It also helped the college to meet the range of mental health problems students were presenting with, and created an ethos of support, trust and inclusiveness within the setting.

2. Having in post a professional with a lead responsibility for addressing students’ mental health. This person would be able to coordinate activities within the college, liaise with external agencies, provide some direct support to students and contribute to the professional development of all college staff regarding mental health and emotional wellbeing.

3. Embedding issues regarding mental health in a range of college policies, including those on disability, equal opportunities and diversity.

4. Providing opportunities for staff development regarding mental health issues. Awareness-raising, skills development, and clearer guidance and support structures within colleges were felt to improve the capacity of all staff working in the college to effectively identify, support and refer on young people at risk of, or experiencing, mental health difficulties.

5. Finally, many respondents recognised that student unions were often under-resourced in their work. However, involving students themselves in developing college provision, and promoting students to have a voice or say in service development, provision and feedback, was invaluable in developing the kind of inclusive college ethos needed to promote students’ mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Alexander, T (2002) A Bright Future for All – Promoting Mental Health in Education. DfES (2005) Developing Emotional Health and Well-Being: A Whole-School Approach to Improving Behaviour and Attendance.

June Statham, Antonia Simon and Peter Aggleton from the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London also worked on the study, Mental Health and Well-Being of Students in Further Education – A Scoping Study, from which this article was written.

First published in Learning for Life, February 2007