Supporting learners’ mental health by supporting ourselves – being connected.

Robert Waldinger, in his November 2015 TedxBeaconStreet talk on happiness asks the question, “What keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life? If you were going to invest in your future best self, where would you put your time and your energy?”

A poignant question, and one, which you may or may not have thought about at some point in your life. Having now brought this to the forefront of your thinking, how would you answer this?

For me, it is living an intentional life. One that is filled with experiences rather than the collection of material possessions that add only transient value. To be connected and share these moments with people, spend time with my family, talk to colleagues, spend time in our allotment, visiting the beach in the winter and attending concerts are things which bring me joy. It is this theme of connecting which has helped how my team and I support our learners. I would like to take you on a small journey on how making connections can be powerful.

FE is a resilient entity; it adapts to meet the needs of the communities it serves all the time. I say without hyperbole that it can transform lives. I have seen it. If you don’t work in FE, I suggest you follow Tom Starkey (@tstarkey1212) who gives an uplifting and often hilarious take on our FE world. FE takes people as we find them, teaching and supporting a wide variety of learners. Increasingly, we find ourselves paying greater and greater attention to how we support learners with mental health and emotional wellbeing. I have always tried to view how we support mental health through the prism of prevention and reaction. It is important that when a learner is in a state of crisis that staff know how to react and offer advice, guidance and refer them the support they need (Mental Health First Aid, CAMHS, GP, Counselling etc.). However, simply to treat the consequences rather than its cause is hugely counterproductive.  Training our staff in ASIST, Mental Health First Aid, and adapting provision to meet need have all helped. However, we have more work to do. Joseph Malins in an 1895 poem summed this up quite nicely,

‘Better to put a strong fence round the top of the cliff. Than an ambulance down in the valley!’

It is important that as teachers, lecturers, support workers, teaching assistants, managers, leaders that we know our role in supporting learners. I am a teacher and manager, not a clinician.  I know that in order to best support learners my team or I cannot do this alone. We need the expertise of many other people, such as Learners’ families/carers, their peers, GPs, third sector and many other allied professionals to all wrap around the learner. You may be thinking, where is the journey he said he was taking us on, it’s coming, I promise.

What can FE do? We can be a small part of the solution by equipping our staff and learners to talk about mental health, share experiences, train our staff, work with the third sector, statutory services and be creative in how we look at support. In July 2017, we had a two event called our ‘Mental Health & Wellbeing Festival’ as part of our personal professional development. You can see the event by searching Twitter for #CAVCWellbeing if you want to see the event and the accompanying Storify. We wanted people to connect, to catch up with colleagues, learn a new skill (healthy stir-fry, anyone?), use technology to help with workload (Microsoft Teams) and learn how we can support learners. It was a whole college approach and I am grateful to the many colleagues who helped pull this together. So, how did we get to this point?

An email to a now good friend, Joseph Baldwin (@JosephBaldwin) to visit the SEND service he was managing, led me to start this twitter account. I searched for FE, SEND, ALN, Mental Health and quickly without knowing, I was building my Personal Learning Network (PLN) and connecting with educators and professionals all over the world and blogging alongside (@reachoutASC). I started following Dr. Pooky Knightsmith (@PookyH) and the amazing work that The Charlie Waller Memorial Trust do (@charliewtrust), this lead to me making links, using their wellbeing action plans, creating exam kits of our learners, exam stress talks and hopefully more collaboration in the future.

I was introduced to Nina Jackson aka. The Ninja (@musicmind) and Mark Anderson (@ictevangelist) both of whom provided powerful keynotes on how we can support learners and how we can use tech to help with workload. Mind (@MindCymru), delivered sessions on mental health awareness, Dr Andrew Reeve (@reeves_therapy) highlighted the importance counselling and the Wales Co-operative (@danielle_dcw & @mattlloydDCW) on being ‘fit for digital’ and our college provided free fruit for the week. Our wonderful catering lecturers taught our staff how to cook quick and healthy meals and our strength and conditioning coach (@richwalters10) gave fitness and nutritional advice to staff. We had Tai-Chai, Office Yoga from (@officeom) and uplifting sessions from Georgina from (@TLONow)

Our mission is to ensure that when we are at our most tested that we remember these events, support, talk to each other and connect. As term finishes, it’s important that we take time to reflect on the year we’ve had, take time for ourselves and take part in what Nina Jackson calls some;

“Personalised R&B, rest and balance”.