I have worked in the mental health field in a variety of different settings since 1992, which have covered residential social care, day care and education.
*It’s offering course information, guidance and support to people with lived experience of mental ill health, in partnership with the East London Foundation Trust. I support people with severe and enduring mental health issues to overcome barriers to learning and ensure they have the appropriate support they need to access and progress in education. I work across Hackney and offer monthly education advice sessions at the local community mental health teams, I also facilitate weekly advice surgeries in the psychiatric wards at Homerton hospital. I help people on a one-to-one basis, which can include emotional and practical support, information and advice, plus advocacy work on behalf of students with college staff and liaising with external agencies, again on behalf of individuals.
*Another key function is raising awareness and challenging the stigma attached to mental ill health. This work includes running mental health awareness training for all college staff, talking to classes and organising workshops for students on mental health awareness and how to manage their own wellbeing. World Mental Health Day is a key focus for workshops and other awareness-raising events and college-based activities.
Giving people a chance to learn and helping them gain meaning and purpose in life. I get inspired seeing students grow in confidence and self-esteem despite their initial difficulties and then succeed and progress in their lives. Equal access to education allows people to feel socially included, and this, in turn, widens participation.
I’m constantly in 1:1 meetings with students, offering support and guidance to keep them on their chosen course. I offer a safe place to talk about their course issues and how to solve them. I liaise with tutors on behalf of students and organise three-way meetings to advocate, say, in-class support and reasonable adjustments to their workload or timetable. I often liaise with external partners, such as care coordinators, psychiatrists and community psychiatric nurses, to discuss current or potential referrals. It’s essential to give students the time they need to work out how to cope with the challenges they face in college.
It was when I took a group of students to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. Our college mental health service had won a prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2011, an award that acknowledges excellence in higher and further education. We had set up a dedicated support scheme since 1997 enabling students with mental health needs to make a smooth transition back into education and employment. Our students really enjoyed the ceremony, meeting the Queen and having lunch at the palace. For one of our business studies students, this opportunity was the boost she needed to complete her course. The Queen asked her about her studies and on the strength of that conversation, she decided not to quit. She finished and we sent a letter to the Queen to thank her!
I set up a meeting with a teacher over from Australia who wants to find out from key people in London’s colleges what benefits learners receive from our mental health support services. I also arranged some mental health awareness training for our college’s ESOL teachers.
It’s managing the expectations within education and health, brokering the relationship to enable students to flourish.
*Every day can be different and full of surprises. One recent high point was winning the Times Education Award for supporting learners with mental health issues. There was stiff competition but we came through victors! More generally, my work is always rewarding - particularly when an individual first comes to you with low self-esteem, no friends and little faith in their abilities and leaves a confident member of the public has developed friendships along the way.
It’s the way our students overcome tremendous obstacles every day and succeed. I can’t stress enough the importance of giving students with severe and enduring mental health issues the opportunity to grow and learn. Not only does it positively affect a person’s well-being but it has a ripple effect in their life, giving them hope for the future.
Good communication skills, be engaged and show real empathy. You need to be caring, compassionate, competent, be able to gain students’ trust, relate to people of all ages and backgrounds and stay calm in difficult situations. You have to be assertive when necessary and be able to advocate on behalf of students. You need a thorough knowledge and understanding of mental health problems and how they affect student lives. A sound grounding in further education and health is another must as the job requires you to be part of a multidisciplinary team that straddles both health and education – you have to be fully clued up to advise and guide people making the often very difficult recovery journey from hospital to college to employment – it’s real wraparound care.
Someone with a sound working knowledge of working in the mental health field and further education is ideal. It helps to have a professional qualification in the specific area of mental health and/or in teaching or an NVQ in Advice and Guidance. I personally did a two-year part-time certificate of education course at London’s Institute of Education just four years ago which linked to my work with ESOL students. Otherwise, I have mostly learnt on the job, backed by my earlier experience of working in mental health services.
The knowledge that I can make a positive impact on the lives of the students I work with. Plus it’s having the ability and opportunity to help those who have been marginalised in society to change their lives and progress.
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