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Bringing Mental Health First Aid To Higher Education

18/09/2017 15:19 | Updated 19 September 2017
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As freshers' week activities get underway across the country this month, we've been focusing our attention on the worryingly high number of university students who experience mental ill health, often whilst living away from home for the first time in their lives. There are many factors which can impact someone's mental health but the transition period of the first term has been identified as a pinch point for many new students, which is why we have decided to launch our new Higher Education Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course at the start of freshers' week.

Over the past 18 months we've been working in collaboration with leading student mental health charity, Student Minds and academics at the University of Chester to develop an accessible MHFA course that will provide mental health awareness training tailored to the needs of university staff and students. The result is a one day course that trains people to be able to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and skills them to be able to guide someone to access the support they need, be it self-help or professional services.

As a Community Interest Company with a mission to train one in ten of the population in MHFA, we are already engaging with a wide range of different employers to run Workplace MHFA courses with the aim of better supporting employees' mental health. We also do a lot of work with primary and secondary schools in the form of our Youth MHFA courses, having trained over 25,000 school staff in MHFA skills. Recognising that the university environment is very much a workplace but also an environment in which staff may be at the frontline in supporting young adults with mental health issues, this new course aims to provide training supportive of both dynamics.

Student mental health is undoubtedly one of the great challenges we face in the education sector at present, with over 75% of diagnosable mental illnesses established by age 24. Rising numbers of drop outs associated with mental health issues and continuing financial, academic and employment pressures faced by students mean that the need for efficacious wellbeing strategies in higher education is more apparent than ever before. It's my belief that Mental Health First Aid has a key part to play in such strategies if we are to improve the mental health of our students.

A recent poll of over 1,000 students by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that, although eight out of 10 had experienced mental health issues over a year, less than half had sought support. Of this group around four in 10 said they hadn't sought help as they were nervous about the support they would receive and three in 10 said they weren't sure about where to get mental health support at their college or university. For me, more than anything, these kinds of statistics indicate that there is a missing link that Mental Health First Aid can address.

The issue of staff mental health is also not to be overlooked. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association reports that in 2014/15 mental ill health accounted for 20.7% of days lost for employees, an increase from 2013/14. Further to this, research by The Guardian has shown that two thirds of academics with mental health issues report that these are a direct result of their work. As with students, many staff also have difficulties coming forward to talk about their mental health and repeatedly low and inaccurate disclosure rates can mask the issue meaning that many are not provided with the support they require.

In creating a course for both students and staff my hope is that more people will feel able to start conversations about mental health and be guided to the support they may need. Often simply the knowledge that someone with MHFA skills is present and available can be enough to help people feel able to come forward. Indeed, in our work with universities to date, those with the most progressive approaches to wellbeing often have well-advertised support networks made up of Mental Health First Aiders.

These kinds of networks are however, only one part of a mentally healthy university community. It's important to bear in mind that, when we talk about organisational wellbeing, we always need to be talking about a 'whole organisation', or in this case, a 'whole university' approach. This involves everyone in the institution working together in their commitment to wellbeing and ensuring that approaches supportive of good mental health are woven in at every level. It means enabling your community to be resilient, communicating wellbeing policies, setting up support groups and instilling an understanding of the importance of wellbeing among staff and students. We recognise that Mental Health First Aid is not a panacea, it provides that initial link and a first step on the ladder to helping someone access further support but, in my opinion, it should be considered as a core part of a wider, progressive strategy to improving mental health in higher education.

To find out more about the Higher Education MHFA course visit mhfaengland.org.

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