11/10/2016 10:35 BST | Updated 10/10/2017 06:12 BST

Minding The Gap In Mental Health Services

When more than one student tells you that your college's mental health support service has literally made the difference between their life and death, you have to sit up and take notice.

Young people's mental health between the ages of 16 to 18 is often overlooked, but I was proud that Hackney Community College, where I was Principal, was able to develop a successful service equipped to help its students. However, not all young people are this lucky.

There is a postcode lottery in mental health services for young people. Some local mental health services provide a better standard of care than others and the relationship with further education (FE) colleges can have a major impact on the support which is accessible to students. FE colleges should be a key player in the support a young person receives, but the local mental health service providers must recognise that and work closely with them.

There are some excellent examples of when services work well. The secret to Hackney Community College's success is that at its heart are two well-qualified and experienced advisers. One post is funded through the college's student support budget and the other post is funded through a long-standing agreement with the Hackney mental health services.

There are other examples of good practice - at the City of Liverpool College, the local clinical commissioning group (CCG) has funded two college-based mental health advisers; in Birmingham, the colleges encouraged the commissioning group in their area to change the mental health services to cover 16 to 25-year-olds, avoiding the tricky transition from child to adult services at the age of 19.

The problem with moving from child to adult services is that continuity is not guaranteed. The young person must be referred to the adult services and may or may not continue to receive support, depending on the perception of their need. Even if they are deemed to need support, it could be weeks or even months before that begins, leaving a gap in their care.

We know that the number of college students with mental health difficulties has increased significantly in the past three years. An Association of Colleges (AoC) survey of colleges found that two-thirds of respondents said that the number of students with mental health difficulties had 'significantly increased', with a further 20% saying they had 'slightly increased. Social media was highlighted as the major reason for the increase in mental health issues, with many also quoting exam and financial pressures.

What is also worrying is that 75% felt that their college had 'significant numbers' of students who had undisclosed mental health difficulties. Schools sometimes fail to pass on information when pupils move on to college. Often, staff meeting students for the first time can better see emerging issues, or new relationships can prompt students to disclose concerns.

At the Conservative Party conference, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said more needs to be done to provide good mental health services and that Government will transform children's services. Close working of services with college students aged 16-18 will help, but even then a third of students referred for support are identified as not meeting the threshold which current resources can support. But he must also look at what happens when a child moves on to adult mental health services and ensure the support they receive is of the same quality and they do not miss out through the transition. It's not just students who need to learn about mental health. In most colleges staff are trained to identify students who may have mental health issues and to support those with lower level needs in the right way.

In most colleges, promoting good mental health is part of the college ethos of promoting wider well-being, with tutorial sessions on healthy eating, physical activity and stress management. Such sessions recognise students are still young, just starting to become more independent and responsible for their lives, and that can be daunting.

We would all like to be able to prevent every young person from suffering from mental health issues but that just isn't possible. We must therefore do our best to make sure that there is adequate intervention to recognise needs, disclosed and undisclosed, and to provide support to prevent anyone from falling through the support gap.