Long before the pandemic, increasing numbers of college students were experiencing poor mental health. This increased even more over the last year due to the disruption to learning, forced social isolation, financial problems and uncertainty caused by Covid19.
While most students at West Lothian College have experienced a blend of remote and campus-based learning over the year, all students learned entirely online for three months during lockdown and some students have not been on campus at all for the whole year. As well as learning to learn using technology, many have had to care for and home-school children. Some have struggled as they don’t have quiet or safe study spaces and limited contact with family, friends, lecturers and other students has added to the pressure.
Planned and additional funding from the Scottish Government has been welcome. It has helped colleges support student wellbeing. With this funding we have been able to give greater financial support to students facing poverty and homelessness, factors that often lead to poor mental health. We have recruited additional mental health experts including counsellors who, despite being limited to counselling online for the past year, report great success in enabling students to deal better with their challenges. Students report how critical this support is through unsolicited, independent feedback.
Our whole college approach
Government funding alone is not sufficient to support this growing problem. Our approach to tackling the student mental health crisis involves our whole college community within and outwith the college.
Our whole college approach supplements the excellent work of our support staff who work every day with students facing homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health difficulties like self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
It includes lecturers and other staff leading with empathy to support students struggling with challenges that impact negatively on their mental health that in turn affects their learning.
It includes incorporating mental health units into a range of qualifications that enable students to better understand how to recognise and deal with poor mental health and maintain good mental wellbeing.
It includes proactive initiatives from our caring and compassionate student association who, right now, are working with partners and college staff to create an outdoor wellbeing space that students will be able to enjoy when they are back on campus.
Collaboration across subject areas is an important part of our whole college approach. Tackling the stigma associated with poor mental health is a consistent thread in this. Before the pandemic took hold last year, our student association and lecturer Marion Darling organised a very successful mental health and wellbeing event in which over 1,200 students took part. Beauty students provided free treatments to aid wellbeing, and sports students carried out health checks and led kickboxing lessons as a way of managing stress.
Students on health, social care and construction courses worked together on an anti-stigma campaign. They created a giant wooden story book and wooden sculptures which they located in the middle of the campus. These contained stories from students and staff about their experiences of dealing with poor mental health, and highlighted the stigma around poor mental health. Importantly, these made mental health visible to every student and member of staff at the college.
Encouraging students to talk
Suicide is at a five-year high in Scotland and the college supports the United to Prevent Suicide movement. To spread the message of this movement, our staff and students created a short film that has been promoted widely on social media.
With men three times more likely than women to die by suicide, lecturers Thomas Barlow and Matt Farnham set up The Man Cave WLC. This safe informal space to come together and talk without being judged is opening up discussion amongst male students.
The college makes visible the mental health challenges that some students face so that they know there is help available.
Working with partners to be a trauma-responsive college
We are always seeking to enhance support for our students and embark regularly on new partnerships that make the most of available resources.
We work with local mental health charities like The Brock Centre in Broxburn and the Neil’s Hugs Foundation. Our students are able to access their specialist services, while the charities benefit from students and staff in the college raising funds to enable them to help more people in West Lothian.
Our whole college approach has staff helping students to improve their wellbeing and cope with the challenges they face. For example, lecturers in subjects like care and hairdressing hold regular informal Tea and a Chat sessions with students, encouraging them to share their worries and listen to how others have dealt with mental health problems.
Two years ago we committed to being a trauma-informed college, recognising that poor mental health is often a result of adverse childhood experiences. With partners like the West Lothian Health and Social Care Partnership, S.M.I.L.E. Counselling in Bathgate and others, we are exploring how we can prevent young people getting caught up in a life of crime, through education wrapped in a package of support that helps develop ways of dealing with addiction and trauma.
We are an inclusive, empathetic and caring college, ambitious for all of our students. Through our whole college approach to mental health and wellbeing our staff, student association and partners go out of their way to enable everyone and anyone to succeed.
It is no exaggeration to say that their efforts and life-changing for many and life-saving for some.