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Northumberland College ensures ‘open door policy’ for students seeking mental health support

With one in four people experiencing mental health issues each year, awareness has, over recent years, increased significantly, with national campaigns such as ‘Time to Change’ attempting to address the stigma amongst groups including young people and the student population.

Educational establishments like Northumberland College and the North East’s FE sector, are making progress in terms of staff training and development in order for teaching, management and pastoral support teams to recognise the early signs of mental health in students and provide an ‘open-door’ policy to wellbeing support.

The proactive move has now enabled Northumberland College to appoint dedicated ‘Mental Health First Aiders’ to fully engage with students on a daily basis and effectively support those seeking help.

This has resulted in 60% more students asking for pastoral assistance over the past four years, an indication of just how important staff training has become.

Martin Sexton, pastoral team leader and safeguarding and prevent lead at Northumberland College explained: “It is a very difficult and often challenging area to address as the issues are very personal to the individual involved. However, by educating our staff and equipping them with the correct skills, knowledge and expertise to help those in need or experiencing difficulties, we can ensure that our students have someone to talk to when they need it and regardless of why.

“The rise in student engagement in relation to wellbeing also tells us that whilst the stigma of mental health is being addressed on a national basis, our staff provide a safe and confidential outlet on a day-to-day basis. They are often a confidant and the first point of contact for many and this forms a key part of the training we deliver.

“The shift in attitude from say five or ten years ago is immense, so we’re definitely taking a huge step in the right direction. Many of the issues coming through not only relate to stress and anxiety regarding learning, ability or exams, but also influences like social media, body image and self-confidence.

“Therefore, by recognising a change in society’s attitudes and different behaviour patterns, educational establishments like Northumberland College can empower staff and help students to achieve their full potential.”

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May 2019) is focusing on body image and the changes required in cultural values, parenting styles, schooling approaches, use of technology advertising standards and reducing discrimination.

Whilst young women are particularly vulnerable to poor body image, the campaign will explore the issue across gender, age, sexuality and ethnicity.

The newly formed regional college group, Education Partnership North East, including Sunderland College, Hartlepool Sixth Form and more recently following the merger, Northumberland College, has committed to changing the perceptions of mental health in the workplace.

It will have over 100 staff fully trained in mental health first aid by June and by 2020, this will become one in seven members of staff across all campuses.

Northumberland College principal, Nigel Harrett, added: “Whilst we, as a sector, have moved a very long way to address the issues from an educational perspective, more can and needs to be done in terms of ensuring mental health and physical health are on an equal footing.

“However, colleges must also have access to the correct funding and resources needed to deliver the necessary training for staff therefore, by forging partnerships with industry, social and welfare services as well as those working in the medical profession, we can deliver a much more comprehensive wellbeing agenda and development programme that effectively addresses mental health in young people and the student population. Staff can then truly support their needs in line with the real issues that young people face.”