Richard Daniel Curtis, CEO of The Mentoring School at the European Vocational Education Week

“Oh, someone’s dealing with that.” is a phrase that I have heard from both further education and higher education staff. What they are referring to is the mental health of their learners.

The truth is that when it comes to supporting mental health difficulties, it is the responsibility of everyone.

There is a stigma around mental health problems, a taboo if you will. When people have colds or flu, others understand and offer sympathy, they may even make a joke of it.

However, when someone is experiencing mental health difficulties, people infrequently understand or offer sympathy and there was certainly no joking about it. It’s something that’s scary, it’s hidden and unknown: who understands the mysteries of how the brain works.

Given the opportunity, people like to avoid talking about mental health problems. They may feel insecure about understanding it, or more commonly than not they are scared about saying the wrong thing, scared about getting it wrong, scared that they’ll make it worse.

The last thing they want to do is offer advice to help them get through it, like they would if it was a cold (everyone has their own home remedy).

Mental health difficulties are an unseen problem that people will often go out of their way to avoid trying to help with.

The truth is, of course, that we all experience mental health difficulties at some point in our lives. It might be acute, for example caused by the breakup of a relationship or workplace stress. Or for others it might be a diagnosable condition like depression, anxiety or even psychosis.

Now at these times the important thing is that the person experiencing these difficulties has a good support network around them. This is one of the most important resilience factors when considering the impact of mental health difficulties – does the individual have a good support network around them?

The truth is that if they have an outlet for their emotions, a way of talking about what they are experiencing, then the impact of those mental health difficulties will be greatly reduced.

Now consider the opposing situation, where someone has few people to turn to and so they bottle up their experience inside, often feeling ashamed that they are weak and that they have succumb to this demon. This can then lead to further deterioration of their mental health, making the impact worse for them and the impact far worse for them.

Unfortunately, in some environments (where there is a stigma around mental health difficulties) people might feel frightened, insecure, or threatened by this unknown monster and so avoid offering support to the person experiencing mental health difficulties.

Even worse, is the environment where apathy has set in and actually it is seen as someone else’s problem, not theirs.

I am delighted to be able to say that I have seen some amazing practice when reviewing mental health provision in post-16 education and the difference is down to the team attitude.

Staff have often received training in recognising the early signs of mental health difficulties, are emotionally literate (not ashamed to talk about their own emotional journey) and see themselves all as part of the support network for the learners. That doesn’t mean that tutors are running counselling sessions, but that they talk to their learners about their mental wellbeing and offer practical advice.

I’ve also unfortunately witnessed settings who have a single counsellor (or pastoral staff member) and it’s their job to support learners with mental health difficulties.

When quizzed, tutors have told me things like “I know he has problems, but it’s not my job to know what they are”, “yes, I am worried about them, so I’ve told someone” or worst “I think someone’s dealing with it.”

Here are a few questions to ask to make sure you are going in the right direction:

  1. Do my staff all ask someone how they are (and cope with the answer)?
  2. Do we encourage healthy mental health habits for staff and learners?
  3. Are we emotionally literate – do we talk about our emotional journeys?
  4. Have we all received mental health training?
  5. Do staff recognise low-level mental health problems that they can deal with compared to those that need professional input?
  6. Do we encourage our Learners to talk about their mental wellbeing?

If the answer to any of those is no, then you should seek advice about putting in place an action plan to support the needs of your staff and your learners – both are equally as important in breaking the taboo surrounding mental health difficulties.

Richard Daniel Curtis, CEO of The Mentoring School

Richard is an internationally renowned behaviour expert.

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