Efforts are life-changing for many and life-saving for some - Jackie Galbraith

Long before the pandemic, increasing numbers of college students were experiencing poor mental health. This has increased even further over the last year due to disruption to learning, forced social isolation, financial problems and uncertainty. For seven of the last 12 months all students have learned entirely online, some have not been on campus at all over the year.

Jackie Galbraith, Principal and Chief Executive West Lothian College

As well as learning to learn using technology, many have had to care for and home-school children. Others have struggled because they don’t have quiet study spaces, and limited contact with family, friends, lecturers and fellow students has added to the pressure. A major stressor for college students right now is uncertainty about whether they will be able to complete their qualifications.

Planned and additional funding from the Scottish Government is very welcome and has helped colleges support student wellbeing.

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With this funding we have provided greater financial support to students facing poverty and homelessness, factors that often lead to poor mental health. We have recruited additional counsellors who, despite being limited to counselling online for the past year, report great success in enabling students to deal better with their challenges. Students reinforce this progress through independent feedback.

However, government funding alone is not sufficient to support this growing problem.

Our approach to tackling the growing student mental health crisis involves our whole college community, within and outwith the college, to support student wellbeing.

This whole-college approach supplements the excellent work of support services staff who work every day with students facing homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health difficulties like self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

It includes incorporating mental health units into a range of qualifications that enable students to better understand how to recognise and deal with poor mental health and maintain good mental wellbeing.

Our whole-college approach includes proactive initiatives from our caring and compassionate student association. For example, they are working with partners and college staff to create an outdoor wellbeing space on campus for students, and to tackle the stigma associated with poor mental health.

The college works hand in hand with local mental health charities like The Brock Centre in Broxburn and Neil’s Hugs Foundation. Our students are able to access their specialist services, while the charities benefit from students and staff in the college raising funds to enable them to help more people in West Lothian.

Our whole-college approach has staff helping students to improve their wellbeing and cope with the challenges they face. For example, lecturers in subjects like care and hairdressing hold regular informal Tea and Chat sessions with students, encouraging them to share and listen to how others have dealt with mental health problems.

Suicide is at a five-year high in Scotland and the college is a partner in a new West Lothian United to Prevent Suicide group. With men three times more likely than women to die by suicide one of our engineering lecturers has set up The Man Cave WLC. This safe informal space to come together and talk without being judged is opening up discussion amongst male students who are typically reluctant to do so.

We are always looking for ways to enhance our support for students and seek out new partnerships to make the most of available resources. Two years ago we committed to being a trauma-informed college, recognising that poor mental health is often a result of adverse childhood experiences. With partners like West Lothian Council and SMILE Counselling in Bathgate and many others, we are exploring how we can prevent young people getting caught up in a life of crime, through education wrapped in a package of support that helps develop ways of dealing with addiction and trauma.

We are an inclusive, empathetic and caring college, ambitious for all of our students. Through our whole-college approach to wellbeing our staff, Student Association and partners go out of their way to enable everyone and anyone to succeed. Their efforts and life-changing for many and life-saving for some.

Jackie Galbraith, Principal and Chief Executive, West Lothian College

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