08/02/2017 07:52 GMT | Updated 07/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Tackling Mental Health Shouldn't Be An Emergency

Recently the media has been full of stories about the perilous situation of the country's NHS. We know that A&E is overloaded and overcrowded. That's why we need to tackle a problem that is becoming more and more significant and adding to the burden on A&E.

Research by the Association of Colleges (AoC) has shown that 74% of colleges have had to refer students to A&E in the past year because they are suffering from a mental health crisis. This is only likely to get worse, as 85% of colleges reported in the same survey that the number of students with mental health issues attending college has increased in the past three years. Put quite simply, we have to act now.

Colleges don't want to have to refer their students, adding to the pressure on A&E, but sometimes they have no choice. There could be another way - through prevention activities to stop mental health issues developing in the first place and through colleges and local NHS services getting better at working in partnership to tackle mental health issues. These issues must be targeted urgently, in the community and in college.

Prevention, rather than cure, is vital. Colleges across the country are teaching students about protecting their wellbeing, eating healthily, and coping with stress to try to prepare them for the slings and arrows of the world. If they develop resilience in coping with setbacks, we will set them up for their future. AoC is working with other agencies to help make more wellbeing resources available to our teachers and we are campaigning for the recent mental health awareness training, announced by the Prime Minister for school staff, to be extended to colleges.

Despite the best efforts at prevention, mental health issues will emerge, and for an increasing number of students. Colleges often have part-time welfare officers but substantial recent cuts in college funding mean most colleges won't be able to afford the increasing, specialist mental health expertise needed. We know from speaking to our member colleges that some have a very good relationship with their relevant services such as clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and local child and adolescent mental health service (CAHMS); for example, CCGs placing specialist workers within colleges. However, these relationships are a postcode lottery, with half of colleges saying the relationships are not effective or, in some cases, non-existent.

There is a significant proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds and adults studying in colleges and, by working with colleges, local CCGs and CAMHS teams could support the young people who are most at risk, engaging them through early intervention and preventing them suffering a crisis. Adult services can do the same.

AoC is calling on local NHS commissioners and trusts to use mental health service funding to develop closer relationships with colleges and place support workers where they can maximise their impact. By working in partnership, colleges and agencies can improve the mental health of students, to keep people out of overstretched accident and emergency services and specialist hospital beds. In this way they will save resources and help more people to get and stay well.