Glasgow Clyde College have recently launched a Mentally Healthy College Community project; the first step in creating a mentally healthy, open and vibrant college.
The first of its kind in Scotland and launched by Minister for Mental Health Maureen Watt, the project is designed to open up communication between staff, students and mental health organisations, ensuring that should anyone ever need to reach out for support they know exactly who to turn to.
Working in partnership with SAMH, the existing counselling services, advisory teams and the student association, Glasgow Clyde College have increased their capacity to support students struggling with mental health issues.
The two-year pilot project is funded with a grant of £179,000 from the Glasgow Clyde Education Foundation and is aimed at training staff in a variety of mental health support facilities to ensure that mental health issues are caught early, or students feel they can reach out for help in a safe, comfortable environment.
Keir McKechnie, who has been employed for the two-year pilot period as the Mentally Healthy College Coordinator has said:
“At the moment we have trained somewhere in the region of 400 staff in basic mental health awareness. This means staff being able to recognise the signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression, exam stress etc. We’re also piloting the recruitment of 10 mental health first aiders, whose job will be to promote the services the college offers. We’re trying to encourage staff to be able to have basic conversations that open up students being able to come for support early.”
A survey conducted at the beginning of the programme garnered a response from around 700 students, with responses showing that one of the most important elements of supporting mental health issues is being able to come forward with your struggles. In an attempt to open up the support to students as early as possible, the project is aiming to address the stigma during student inductions:
“When students start the college, there’ll be someone from the learning inclusion team that will go along, there’ll be someone from the students association, and there’ll be someone from the student advice team. And they’ll tell students where to come for extra support with their mental health, or it might be extra learning support needs so they might need extra time to complete an assignment, might need some assistance with technology.”
These processes are aimed at developing ways in which to focus on early intervention and prevention, rather than the mental health services being just about crisis management.
“We’re trying to create a good environment for conversations around the notion that it’s okay not to be okay all the time – it’s actually okay to feel stressed and be anxious and for your mood to drop. And it’s important to know that when that happens, you don’t have to wait until it deteriorates so that it’s an extreme crisis situation. You can get help early.”
“The most important thing is that we’re advertising that this college is a place where if you’re feeling unwell and you need help with something, that you know you can go to the learning inclusion teams, you can go to the student advice teams, you can go to the lecturing staff – you can go to them with the knowledge that there’s been some form of basic mental health training.”
The project is also looking at ways in which to help students feel they can come forward without feeling pressured about having to speak to various people before getting help:
“We’re producing a mass of booklets and flyers and leaflets as well as developing a digital online hub which will be very helpful for students who are maybe not ready to talk to somebody about how they feel – they can go to the college website, or the college app on the intranet and self-refer for counselling or ask a question.”
But the most important issue the Mentally Healthy College community project is striving to address is that staff also need support: staff members within the colleges may also need support with their mental health, or need support in order to be able to professionally and accurately help students with their mental health.
“We’re not just looking at the well-being of the students, we also asking the question of who cares for the carers? We’re working very hard with the staff to make sure that they feel supported – that they have the right training at the right level.”
The colleges are now offering extra training for staff in various areas relating to mental health; most recently a number of staff across campuses have completed a First Aid Suicide Prevention course (ASIST), providing them with a better knowledge and confidence of dealing with mental health issues in students should they arise.
The project is not blind to its challenges or its limitations:
“We’re not going to completely fill the gaps because we’re not a health service, but what we can do is improve people’s knowledge of services and how to refer and access these services – to be able to offer basic human kindness and support.”
“We don’t want to turn every member of staff into a nurse, or a psychologist; we’re clear that their role is education and learning, but when problems arise that students have in their real life come into the college, we want them to feel confident to say how are you doing? And hopefully they can open up supportive conversations that will lead them to pointing folk in the right direction.”
Keir and his teams are targeting more staff than just lecturers and those already in the mental health services within Glasgow Clyde College campuses – training is open to all staff and these services have been accessed by catering and assist staff already, among others. While the level of training will vary between staff members, the goal is to ensure that as many staff as possible have the knowledge and confidence to deal with any issues should they be approached by a student.
The project so far has been showing promising results, with staff and students alike feeling more comfortable about coming forward should they need help or support. The project is working closely with staff and students in order to formulate their responses and services around the needs outlined by those who are in need of support – asking those who need support how they can feel comfortable in their academic careers.
Should the project prove successful, it is hoped that it will be expanded to other colleges and universities throughout the country.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article or are looking for additional help and support, visit the SAMH website.