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By Andy Gilbert-Dunnings, Qualification Development Manager, Active IQ

The combination of social distancing, three lockdowns, COVID-19 health worries among our family and friends, and the wider impact of the pandemic has negatively impacted our mental health and wellbeing. While we all want things to return to ‘normal’, the fact is our recent lifestyle changes have given rise to anxiety and mental ill-health.

As we start to come out of lockdown, there’s an added anxiety around returning to ‘normal’ and what this will actually look like. Having a greater awareness of mental health will be key.

Students have suffered particularly, and mental health issues are on the rise within the college environment. A recent Association of Colleges (AoC) survey into mental health and wellbeing revealed that 94% of colleges had reported they were aware of attempted suicides among their college population in the past year. This is a 54% increase from 2019 figures. Therefore, it is vital that staff are aware of how to respond to students and colleagues who they feel are at risk of mental ill-health and suicide. A good first step is to have the confidence and language to know what to do.

Active IQ has recently launched a three-year partnership with the AoC to work together closely to support and upskill learners and staff alike. As part of this, we are supporting college staff with a series of interactive webinars to give practical tips, strategies and knowledge of the support available. With a reduction in social contact time, and a lack of control over the situation or disruption to learning, it is vital that staff are empowered to help others around them, whether that’s learners, colleagues, friends or family.

The first session we delivered focused on preparing colleagues to give support to students who may be feeling suicidal. They were given practical advice on preventative measures and how to spot early warning signs.

The second focused on social prescribing. Staff were given information about signposting learners with personal, social or emotional issues to other support services. Through a survey conducted earlier this year, the AoC found that 99% of colleges ran wellbeing sessions for students, with the majority seeing positive relationships result between learners and the staff responsible for physical wellbeing and mental health.

As part of this wellbeing education process, colleges have a great opportunity to support their learners through access to both physical activity and enrichment options either internally within the college or through referral to community intervention partners.

Our final session, which is due to take place on 22 April, will focus on trauma. The webinar will discuss the link between trauma and mental health problems, and offer attendees practical tips on how to help someone who has experienced a traumatic event in the short and long term.

As colleges return to classroom teaching, many students might feel they’ve lost out on valuable learning time. It is really important that tutors come into this period with an awareness that some students could be struggling due to the perceived pressure of needing to catch up. Enabling tutors to engage in proactive conversations with students they think may be struggling and empowering them to create safe environments where people can express their feelings will go a long way in easing the pressures students will face.

We are proud to play our part in supporting colleges on this journey and, in turn, hope this helps students continue their education feeling confident, valued and supported.