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Why we need to focus on action this Mental Health Awareness Week

15 May 2024

As we embark on Mental Health Awareness Week, there are some fundamentals to step back and consider, connections to understand and terrific practice to share.

To begin with, we know full well that our awareness of mental health has improved sharply over the past five years. It’s become a frequent topic at senior team meetings in colleges across the country, not to mention schools, universities and many employers. It’s become a headline as need surges and the demand for effective support far outstrips the supply as NHS, CAMHS and adult social service teams struggle to cope with referrals. It’s unignorable in our world today as trauma and debilitation surface around us repeatedly.

And we rightly see it this way: as a deficit, an illness dragging people and whole families backwards. We have developed our understanding much further over recent years, seeing all the challenges through a far clearer lens, with better language to describe it all. Data on referrals, attendance rates, casework and other indicators is commonplace and part of mainstream leadership focus.

To also acknowledge the flip of a deciding coin on our mental wealth, it seems to fall to the luck of the toss, namely our postcode and affordability, to be able to invest in our wellbeing through sport, enrichment, social activities, volunteering and community engagement. We know the value of and relationship between social connection, physical health and mental wellbeing, but financial support for these activities both in our colleges and wider communities are often the first to go under austerity and restricted spending – but at what cost? Our positive mental health should be protected and nurtured, alongside strengthening our strategy and services to be able to intervene at our most vulnerable moments.

There’s a stronger appreciation of the causes and barriers compounding each other, a list of factors making it tougher to engage successfully with all the opportunities before us. From fear of failure, to bullying and abuse, to Covid interruptions, to social anxiety, the causes are all there in the currents of everyday life and so they are unavoidable.

This is why we have Mental Health Awareness Week: to extend our insights still further, pulling this growing wealth of knowledge into common ownership. As educational practitioners especially, it’s essential for us to share what we know and build a collective range of interventions. We’ve certainly learnt that there is no single solution, but a methodology that connects everyone into a network of solutions is emerging as a best-available approach.

It is with privilege that I chair the Mental Health Reference Group | Association of Colleges (, a vital connection within the FE network. Collaboratively, we work with government departments, agencies and partner organisations to influence policy formation and implementation, and shape AoC priority work through sharing our advice and experience. The responsibility and impact of colleges in this agenda is significant, thus it is important that we speak with collective voice at volume, to articulate the challenges and opportunities ahead.

We’ve seen the marked development and roll-out of whole-organisation strategies, drawing together all the people working in a college into a safety net of vigilance, linked by a growing openness that destigmatises the illness and with an array of expert practitioners to respond quickly and proportionately to risk. External partnerships have grown, and referral has become a well-used routine in many colleges now.

But there’s more to do. Much of that promoted wellbeing was lost to the pandemic and is returning only slowly and without strategic intent; sports, social, cultural and wider enrichment activities have all suffered yet hold a critical role within a social prescribing model to complement therapeutic intervention. The events that captured the imaginations of young people in colleges have become sparser and a strategic effort to rebalance the deficit model of mental health must play a bigger part of the total organisational solution as practice and pedagogy develops further.

And as we look ahead to the ways colleges develop their approaches; their unique capabilities and position with the education system lends them the opportunity to excel in this field. There is huge potential for FE colleges together to describe, adopt and implement a strategy, not just as individual institutions, but as a whole-sector approach, using platforms such as the AoC’s new Mental Health Charter to generate a much higher level of commonality and partnership.

Our awareness this week should not just grow our understanding of the challenges but also our ability to address them successfully and at scale. We owe our students that.

Peter Mayhew-Smith is the CEO and Group Principal of South Thames Colleges Group, and the Chair of the AoC Mental Health Reference Group.