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How Covid-19 has affected student mental health and how NCG colleges are stepping up to provide extra support.

By Melanie Kay (Newcastle College), Anne-Marie Bates (Kidderminster College), Yvette Kay (Kidderminster College) and Sharon Cousins (Lewisham College).

When NCG colleges closed their doors and moved swiftly to remote teaching and learning in March in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was little time to prepare for the impact on our students.

Isolation, health concerns and uncertainty about the future has likely had a negative impact on the mental health of most people in the country, but particularly young people. And those students who have experienced care, or are already seeking academic and wellbeing support, are even more likely to have felt the negative effects.

With seven colleges across the country each working to support their own student communities, the teams have discussed how they have individually stepped up their support provision in 2020.

“Student requests for support related to mental health and wellbeing are continuing to rise this year,” says Melanie Kay, ALS Manager at Newcastle College. “Poor mental health in young people was already rapidly on the rise, so while there is some correlation, this increase can’t be directly linked to the pandemic.

“That is particularly true for young males, who we know often don’t discuss their thoughts openly thanks to the societal expectations of men to be strong and the stigma attached to talking about their emotions. It is in fact an awful statistic that suicides are significantly rising among men and last year the North East had the highest suicide rates in England.

“This is a frightening statistic, especially when we consider that almost half of care leavers at Newcastle College are male.

“If we also consider the realities facing care leavers – 20% of homeless young people are likely to have been in care and 40% of young people leaving care are unlikely to be in education or employment – and add the pressures of Covid-19 to that mix, the likelihood is that the need for support is going to be greater than ever from our care experienced students.”

Yvette Kay, Deputy Student Services Manager at Kidderminster College agrees that Covid can only be adding to an already anxious student population, as the College’s counsellor has seen a rise in learners with anxiety related issues.

“We have definitely seen a rise, but we can’t attribute all of these to Covid,” Yvette says. “We are asking questions about Covid and lockdown during welfare interventions but the general feedback is that it has been fine and some have even enjoyed the time spent at home, although many are concerned about the economy and their future.”

And at Lewisham College, many care leavers are young unaccompanied Asylum Seekers, living independently or in semi-independent accommodation, says Sharon Cousins, Head of Student Services and Learning Technology for Lewisham College who adds:

“This has led to many of these students finding the lockdown extremely stressful and isolating. Many suffer from digital poverty and a lack of financial stability, receiving only basic financial support for food and accommodation, so they often haven’t had the resources to interact with the outside world.

“Add to this that English is not their first language, fear and anxiety related to Covid and travelling across London and the support network of the college not being available during the summer months, the current situation has really heightened their feelings of isolation and vulnerability, which has had a very negative impact on those who have already been struggling with their mental health.”

So, what have the Colleges done to ensure they are providing the right level of support to students, particularly those leaving care?

Every NCG College has dedicated student support teams in place to provide academic and personal support to those students who need it and these teams are working harder than ever to ensure students receive the right support as quickly as possible.

“At Newcastle College we have our internal Counselling, Safeguarding, Pastoral Support and SEND teams to support students and we also work closely with our local partners to effectively signpost students and work collaboratively,” says Melanie. “Communication and improved relationships with local authority key workers is now vital for us to be reactive to the increasing support need that we are facing.

“Raising awareness through college campaigns and our social media and digital learning channels is crucial to make sure we can provide support in a timely manner.”

While these teams work separately with students in their own colleges, they also work together through an NCG cross-college working group ‘Care and Connect’, meeting monthly to share best working practice, find innovative solutions to problems and identify ways that NCG can progress the work it already does.

During lockdown, NCG signed up to two partnerships which will ensure that students across all its colleges receive support with their mental health and wellbeing. It became the first further education provider to form a partnership with the Care Leaver Covenant, committing to going the extra mile to support care leavers and help remove barriers for them to access higher education and employment opportunities.

In addition, NCG has also partnered with Fika, a mental health app designed to help students stay motivated, focused and connected while studying remotely.

The app features daily livestreams, activities and videos from expert psychologists and professional athletes that are aimed at helping students overcome the mental health impact of Covid-19 and remote study, tackling topics including connecting, managing stress, self-care and creating healthy habits.

Tutors and teachers across the NCG community have been using the app to open up discussions individually with students or as part of lessons and the community feature helps ensure that every student can connect and share with others across the country.

NCG is doing everything it can to support its student community at this time, but there is one important part of that support that is beyond its control – staying open for students.

Melanie concludes: “Throughout lockdown, some of our care experienced students now living independently longed to attend college to see a familiar and friendly face in person, rather than via a digital platform. So now that we’re able to see those students in person, safely, that is really helping. It is most important that we stay open.”