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Supporting staff and learners experiencing mental health difficulties: FE colleges research

Research into disclosure issues for staff and learners experiencing mental health difficulties in Scotland's colleges.

In Scotland around one in 77 learners (1.3%) have disclosed a ‘mental health difficulty’ to their college. However, figures from the Department for Health indicate that in the UK one in four adults experience mental illness at some point during their lifetime and one in six experience symptoms at any one time. This stark difference suggests mental health difficulties within Scotland’s colleges are currently under reported.

In response to this ECU conducted a survey of 157 staff and 97 students, from 12 Scottish colleges, who have experienced mental health difficulties. The survey investigated:

  • experiences of talking to fellow learners or colleagues about mental health difficulties
  • how many learners or staff disclosed at application or enrolment and why people choose to disclose or not to disclose
  • how many learners and staff disclosed to receive support and adjustments from their college
  • staff and learners’ experiences of receiving support and adjustments.

In seeking the views of learners and staff who have experienced mental health difficulties, it is hoped that the proposed recommendations are targeted to the requirements of learners and staff in the sector.

Experiences of talking to fellow learners or colleagues about mental health difficulties >

Key findings

Many learner respondents had spoken to fellow learners about experiencing mental health difficulties

  • Just over 3 in 5 learner respondents who had experienced mental health difficulties while studying their course had disclosed a mental health difficulty to a fellow learner

“I'd told some friends I'd made on the course as well as it helped to explain why I am the way I am”

“It's a part of who I am and I don't tend to hide it...”

Learners were generally supportive

  • 70% of learner respondents said their fellow students were supportive or very supportive since they disclosed.

“A good support system is very important to someone with a mental health problem.”

Colleagues were generally supportive

  • 90% of respondents who disclosed to colleagues were very satisfied or satisfied with how they responded.

“Support network enabled me to continue with my job effectively and it was encouraging to know that there were people around me that I could turn to for help , advise, support or guidance if needed.”

 

Disclosing a mental health difficulty on application/enrolment >

Key findings

Few respondents disclosed a mental health difficulty on application

  • Less than 1 in 3 respondents disclosed on their application form
  • The main reasons people disclosed was to 'receive support from their college', or because they saw 'no reason not too'
  • The main reasons for not disclosing were 'thinking it may affect success of the application,' 'not thinking of mental health difficulty as a disability,' 'receiving unfair treatment' and 'not thinking mental health difficulty as severe enough'

Few respondents disclosed a mental health difficulty on enrolment

  • Just over 1 in 3 respondents disclosed during enrolment to college
  • The main reasons people disclosed was to 'receive support from their college,' or because they saw 'no reason not too'
  • The main reasons for not disclosing were 'not thinking of mental health difficulty as a disability,' not thinking 'there was any reason to,' 'receiving unfair treatment' and 'not thinking mental health difficulty as severe enough'

Recommendations

  • Increase awareness of opportunities at application and enrolment

“Being able to say on the application and interview stages that I had mental health difficulties was very good, they also then said that someone would contact me to discuss this and I was contacted."

Disclosing to receive support >

Key findings

Few respondents disclosed a mental health difficulty to their college to receive support or adjustments

  • Just under 2 in 5 learner respondents had spoken to someone about receiving support or adjustments
  • Just under 1 in 3 staff respondents had spoken to someone about receiving support or adjustments

Learner respondents spoke predominantly to learning support staff, personal or guidance tutors, followed by student service staff, staff in college counselling service and fellow students, about getting support

  • There were a range of people who respondents spoke to about receiving support and adjustments whilst studying or working.
  • The main reasons for not disclosing were not thinking of mental health difficulty as a disability, receiving unfair treatment and not thinking mental health difficulty as severe enough

“Teaching staff have been wonderful with me. They just encourage you to try your best.”

Staff respondents spoke predominantly to line managers and HR, then Occupational Health and colleagues, about getting support

  • Of those who had disclosed to occupation health, 65% were satisfied or very satisfied with how they responded.

“It meant that someone with the necessary skills and experience was available as another strand of support. Felt like it was support and not being managed!”

“I couldn't have asked for a better meeting from the Occupational Health doctor. He listened to my issues and ask clear and concise questions to get a good understanding of my issues and what I have been doing to already better them. He gave me information to assist with my illness and support for an easier return to work. I felt very positive when I came out from our meeting and would encourage anyone to go should they need to.”

  • 65% of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with how their line manager responded.

“My line manager does everything in her power to support staff and has been very understanding and supportive during my time dealing with mental

Receiving support and adjustments >

Key findings

Few learners or staff were aware of the support on offer before studying/working at their university

  • Less than 1 in 4 learners knew about support and adjustments before they started their studies
  • Only 1 in 20 staff knew about support and adjustments before they started working
  • The main sources of information were college staff, open day/visit to college

Few respondents had received support or adjustments

  • Just over 1 in 3 learner respondents had received support or adjustments
  • Less than 1 in 3 staff respondents had received support or adjustments

Respondents had received a range of support or adjustments

  • Support and adjustments received by learners included:
    • adjustments to coursework or assessment deadlines
    • adjustments to exam process
    • counselling sessions
  • Support and adjustments received by staff included:
    • Referrals to counselling services
    • Change from full time work to part time, reduced work load, temporary adjustment of work tasks
    • Training on Mental Health, stress management course
    • Flexibility of working hours, considerations around timekeeping and attendance
    • More control over work tasks
    • Regular supportive reviews during sickness absence
    • Change location to work much closer to home
    • Phased return to work

The vast majority of respondents who had received support and adjustments said it had a positive or very positive effect

  • 85% of learner respondents who received support or adjustments said that it had a positive or very positive effect on their studies and other experiences at college
  • 92% of staff responded that overall the support or adjustments had a positive or very positive effect on their work and the workplace.

“ I feel that our college is very good at supporting staff with any issues they may face within the workplace...”

“The adjustments that were made have been invaluable, without this support I don’t know where I would be ...The positive effects of the support and adjustments that I have received have been an improvement in attendance, timekeeping, increased productivity and better work relationships with my colleagues.”

“It is invaluable to know that I can go to the necessary appointments and not fear repercussion from it”

“Although the support I did receive was extremely helpful, I did feel a little like I wasn't understood or how the problem I was dealing with was affecting me at work. I think a lot of unseen illnesses can be dismissed and thought of as exaggeration... I feel support should be proactive and would be more economical in the long term.”

Recommendations

Provide individualised support with plans

“Being able to meet the support worker before I started my course and get to know them was very important, I was also able to be involved in the worker producing a health support plan about my mental health difficulties; this went to my course leader about how my MH difficulties effect m in and out of college. My support worker with my consent communicates with my care manager and this is very helpful and also keeps me safe when I am unwell."

Develop networking and individual support groups

  • These can include:
    • Buddying Schemes
    • Confidential support groups among staff

Develop flexible approach to job roles, duties and work patterns

“... many mental health issues are caused by how things are handled at work, not the work itself.”

  • This will include:
    • Flexible hours
    • Support in completing particular tasks
    • Re-allocation of tasks
    • Flexible deadlines
    • Time off for counselling
    • Access to meditation services or assertiveness training
    • Support with regard to return to work

Develop flexible approach to assessments and timetabling

  • Consider effects of timetabling
  • Apply different methods of assessment.

Provide accessible learning materials

  • Put all material online (could include Dictaphone audio files)

Consider the effects of the built environment

  • Provide quiet areas where staff and students, especially those with anxiety, can feel "safe"

Monitor and develop feedback systems of processes

  • Ask people how to improve the current system and suggest what isn’t working.
  • Ask people who have experienced mental ill-health to give their views on work practices
  • Ask for specific feedback regarding courses and individual tutors

Resource support adequately

  • For example resource a mental health team with councillors