In the wake of what has been dubbed a mental health crisis, Newcastle College has taken strides to improve the support it offers to its staff and young people. Principal Tony Lewin discusses the steps they are taking to tackle the issue

Newcastle College

Current statistics, published by Mental Health First Aid England, show that up to 1 in 6 working adults suffer from symptoms associated with mental ill health at any given time, responsible for 72 million working days lost each year. People with long-term mental health conditions lose their jobs at double the rate of those without a mental health condition, equating to 300,000 people – the population of Newcastle.

Given that 75% of mental ill health develops by the age of 18, these figures drive home the importance of educators and employers alike providing the right support for students and staff.

“As a further education college and a University Centre, it’s vital that we protect and safeguard the young people who have entrusted their education to us,” he says.

“We are positioned in the heart of an extremely diverse community and with that comes a number of issues which affect many of our students, including high levels of poverty and deprivation, which have been proven to have a negative effect on both the physical and mental health of young people.

“Up to one in ten young people are currently suffering and it’s frightening that suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 5 – 19. Especially when this epidemic has been linked to so many different contributing factors, including academic pressure and a lack of professional support available.

“We have had a Central Support Service, as well as an additional Higher Education Support Team, in place for many years. Both of those offer our students support on a wide range of personal and academic issues, including access to a counselling service and additional support for our learners who may be struggling with a mental health illness or addiction.

“This year, we have introduced a Youth Mental Health First Aid Scheme, which means that our learners can access immediate support from a specifically trained member of staff if they’re experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The provision is similar to the physical first aid service we have across our campus but focuses on our students’ emotional wellbeing and allows us to respond quickly and effectively to students when they need us the most and help them to access professional help when it’s needed.

“Of course it isn’t just our young people affected by these issues and it’s important for both our learners and our staff that we can offer a similar level of support to our employees. As the statistics show, mental health is a leading cause of absence from work, which in the world of education would also negatively impact our students. So, it’s vital that we can foster a culture and an environment which helps our staff to work effectively and feel supported while they’re here.

“We’ve recently launched a very similar Mental Health First Aid service for colleagues, although it does sit apart from the student focused one. We have volunteer members of staff who have undergone specialist mental health training in order to support their colleagues in times of need. This support can vary from having a non-judgmental conversation in confidence, through to guiding them towards appropriate professional support.

“We aren’t asking our colleagues to be professional therapists or counsellors, but being able to talk to someone who will listen to you in confidence and trust that they won’t judge what you’re thinking or feeling can go a long way to helping an individual feel supported in the workplace.

“The idea is to allow people to have an informal conversation about things without the pressure of it being a manager or HR. Those support steps will be there when they’re ready, if necessary, but it can be difficult to start that conversation in a formal way.

“Before we implemented the Mental Health First Aid service, and still in place, is the Employee Assistance Programme which offers a lot of resources for both mental and physical wellbeing, including access to a 24-hour confidential support line. “As well as this, we ensure that
we implement Employee Wellbeing Days throughout the year. This allows departments across the College to take time within their teams to take part in beneficial activities outside of their usual working structure. It could a be a physical activity, exercise, volunteering, or simply some team-bonding.

“I think most people are aware that there is still room for improvement when it comes to mental health support and improving everyone’s wellbeing, no matter the industry, but I’m glad that we are taking steps to make these improvements.

“Here in the North East especially, where our suicide rates are the highest in the UK, where unemployment and poverty is so prevalent, I hope that we can continue to make positive changes to help improve the wellbeing of everyone who lives, works and studies here.”