New research carried out by the membership organisation, the Association of Colleges (AoC) [i], has revealed that three quarters (74%) of further education colleges in England[ii] have been forced to refer students experiencing mental health crises to Accident and Emergency (A&E) in the past academic year (2015/16).

The number of college students with mental health issues is increasing. 85% of colleges that responded to the survey reported an increase in students with disclosed mental health issues in the past three years[iii]. Four-fifths (81%) also reported having significant numbers of students who had undisclosed mental health difficulties.

The survey shows that almost all colleges (97%) are providing education on wellbeing as part of extensive work to support students in maintaining mental wellness. Additionally, the majority have dedicated counselling and welfare staff to support and refer to specialists, those students who are experiencing mental ill health.

However, as a result of the substantial reductions in college funding in the previous five years, most colleges have had to make reductions in non-teaching services and less than half (40%)[iv] of the colleges surveyed are now able to support a full-time counsellor or mental health worker on campus. The research reveals a postcode lottery in the relationship between colleges and their local mental health services. While most colleges generally have a good relationship with their local child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and adult mental health services, not all do. Nearly half say their relationship with local clinical commissioning groups, which procure mental health services, is ‘non-existent’ (48%).

Ian Ashman, President of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: “Accident and emergency units are overloaded and overcrowded and it is not right that colleges are forced to refer so many students to these services, which are often not the most appropriate place for them. Colleges don’t want to add to the current problems A&E services are experiencing, but they are sometimes left with no choice because there is a lack of investment in joined up specialist support for young people and adults in the community. “Colleges do excellent work in helping students to stay well and to support those with mental ill health. However, where they have good relationships with their local mental health services, they are able to do much more to address issues before they become serious. Effective intervention by such partnerships can avoid students developing more serious problems or getting to the point of a mental health crisis.”

AoC is calling on local NHS commissioners and trusts to use mental health service funding to develop closer relationships with colleges. There is a significant proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds and adults studying in colleges and, by working with colleges, local CAMHS teams could support the young people who are most at risk and prevent them suffering a crisis. Adult services can do the same. Education and training are also recognised as contributing to wellbeing.

Mr Ashman continued: “Admitting young people and adults to A&E because they are having a mental health crisis could be preventable, if only the right services were available in the community. We know that more and more young people particularly are suffering with some form of mental illness and we need to make sure that the services they need are available at the time that they need them.”

If colleges are to work with more students who have mental health issues, then the right level of support must be put into place. We know from excellent examples of partnership working between mental health services and colleges, that this can be done by providing mental health specialists to work in colleges, alongside training college staff to recognise the signs that a young person is having mental health issues and to make appropriate referrals.

AoC wants local mental health services and colleges to develop better working relationships and it is asking colleges to prioritise student wellbeing. AoC has designated this as a year of mental health and it is working with colleges and NHS agencies to create resources and best practice guides to demonstrate the positive relationships colleges have with local mental health services and to enable these to be developed and maintained. It has also called on the Government in its Spring Budget submission to increase college funding to allow them to properly fund services to students and to include college staff in the programme of mental health awareness training of school teachers, recently announced by the Prime Minster.

Commenting on research by the Association of Colleges (AoC), Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “The findings in AoC’s research is deeply disturbing, although unsurprising. Young people are under increasing pressure and the mental health of those entering FE colleges will not have been helped by narrowing the school curriculum and by forcing them to jump through the hoops of endless testing. “Budget cuts, restructures and the Area Reviews have also made it harder for young people to access the provision they need at college. FE teachers, lecturers and support staff want to do everything they can to help their students with mental health problems, and they have considerable expertise in this area. However, as the AoC’s research shows, funding cuts to the sector by this and the last Government, means that the support simply cannot be provided. Young people are therefore dealt a double blow with increasing mental health problems along with the support for these issues dwindling.”

[i] Association of Colleges (AoC) survey about students with mental health conditions in Further Education in England, November 2016. 105 colleges responded out of 324 colleges in England.

[ii] 72 colleges out of the 97 colleges that answered that question.

[iii] 54% reported a significant increase in students with disclosed mental health issues, and 31% a slight increase

[iv] 40% of the 103 colleges that answered this question

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