Is your institution one of the 101 colleges to have so far signed up to the Association of Colleges (AoC) mental health charter five months since its launch? And if not, why not?
The AoC brochure, Mental Health & Wellbeing, carries key examples of certain colleges working to prevent mental illness among students. But as a colleague reminded me recently, there’s still a mountain to climb.
Austerity cuts have, for instance, removed a hefty 18.3% of UK funding for drug and alcohol addiction treatment alone between 2013-18, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by Action on Addiction earlier this year. It found one in four respondents had a family member with an addiction issue, and more than two-thirds felt more support should be available.
Mental health problems on the rise
Such worrying stats fuel growing concern across colleges about a perceived rise in mental health problems.
Making the right decision is not easy when you can sometimes actually smell drugs on your students and need to know how to proceed. Many FE teachers are highlighting this phenomenon and asking how we can challenge a student who might on being approached become super calm, agitated or just plain angry.
And addiction is only one aspect. What about the number of 16- to 18-year-olds suffering from anxiety or depression and taking medication? How does this affect their learning and everyday behaviour? If you see a student with dilated eyes, have you been trained to recognise that as a warning that something’s wrong? How indeed do you read a student’s body language and know how far to question certain behaviours and when to stop?
This year one of my colleagues told me 30-40% of his students suffered from mental ill-health - a level far higher than in previous years - and this was in just one class. He said he had two teaching assistants who between them were probably covering just three learners’ needs.
Collaboration, flexibility and patience are key
For FE teachers it’s about finding techniques and strategies to accommodate such numbers and get through the curriculum. Collaboration, flexibility and patience are paramount - asking tutors how they support individuals in the class, testing if the student is dyslexic, breaking down learning into small chunks for learners to absorb, and extending deadlines, especially if a student suffers anxiety and is on medication.
Continuing professional development is key and some colleges help provide it by nominating and then training up existing experienced staff as advanced practitioners to hold one-to-one mentoring sessions with other staff to plan teaching strategies and methods.
However, far more needs to be done to counter such a mental health challenge. Who currently is trained to detect which drugs a student could be taking, let alone recognise they are taking them at all? At my college, we have some mental health training online, particularly for those working with 16-18s where intervention is required as much as prevention. But we need much more.
If a student’s eyes look dilated, what do you do?
Some of my colleagues have personal issues with students in their classes who have smoked drugs. Even if you detect they are users, you have to be aware of their rights - you can’t search them, for instance. So what do you do? Say a student’s eyes do look dilated or a learner suddenly becomes over-chatty or assertive - how do you manage that? It’s about knowing at the moment what to do - without the right training, everyone will tend to handle things differently.
Above all, we need tuition in how to avoid situations that can escalate quite rapidly. Do we try to keep students occupied, contain the problem in class and challenge them gently in a conversation after class? We need to know how to read young people and that only comes from training, experience, and yet more training that we should expect and demand from our colleges.
I’ve found the best way to deal with one lad on medication that can cause his hands to start quivering: at some point in a lesson I need to take time out and check in with him to see how much learning he has absorbed.
Knowing how to read the signs
Another learner often gets anxious in class and I find letting them leave the room and then follow up with tapping-in works best. EFT tapping (emotional freedom technique) manages emotional issues from anxiety, depression and stress to pain. It is tapping certain points of the body - meridian hot spots - to restore balance.
You have to get to know how to read the signs - some students get very embarrassed and don’t want anyone to know they have any problems so I have to tread cautiously, whereas others are quite happy to disclose things.
Some more forward-thinking colleges help their staff by employing dedicated learning development coaches who can hold three-way meetings between student, teacher and an invited third party such as a key worker from social services.
Students are undergoing more changes and trauma
The rate of mental health decline among young people appears to be increasing. Young people seem to go through more external experiences, changes and trauma than previous generations. So we have to become more mindful and pro-active. Students can’t learn and achieve anything if they are completely out of it.
Schools have to embrace intervention early, whereas colleges - which give many students a second chance after underachieving at school - are under pressure to prevent as well as intervene.
At college, for instance, students risk losing their all-important work placement if they don’t attend and they show behavioural problems. My college will often try referring them on to the Prince’s Trust, which offers them another chance to improve their practical skills. Once a student has completed a course at the trust, we’ll re-evaluate their mental state to ensure they are no longer a danger to themselves before they resume their studies with us.
The beauty is we never give up
One of the beauties of FE colleges is that we don’t abandon our students - we almost always manage to salvage something. As the education system’s natural bulwark against failure, the FE sector plays a pivotal role in the fight against mental ill-health. And it’s why more funding and resources are now more important than ever.
Colleges Week is this week, so please make mental health a key topic when you talk to your MP - lobbying does work!