AoC Sport shares learnings and lessons this Mental Health Awareness Week

AoC Sport Mental Health ()

With a vision for every college student to participate regularly in sport or physical activity, AoC Sport is leading the way in championing the benefits of an active life.

At the heart of its work is the Mental Health Programme which aims to support students with low levels of mental wellbeing or diagnosed mental health conditions to become more active and promote the advantages of physical activity on mental health.

Since 2015, the membership organisation has trained more than 200 college staff in Mental Health First Aid, launched a nationwide ambassador programme and provided tutorial resources to almost 80 colleges.

They are also a signatory of the Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation, which was launched six years ago by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, Mind and Professional Players Federation.

As the nation marks Mental Health Awareness Week, Gray Mytton, Policy and Project Officer at AoC Sport, tells us more about their work, the current picture of young people’s mental health and how the pandemic has affected the wellbeing of all those the organisation engages with.

What mental health challenges are students at colleges across England and Wales facing?

Colleges are reporting increasing numbers of students with diagnosed mental health conditions, according to our latest survey from January this year.

The data for 16-18 year olds is stark, with 90% stating an increase over the last three years. Furthermore, 85% of colleges say they are seeing a significant number of students with mental health difficulties who do not have a diagnosed mental health condition.

We are also concerned to see the figures relating to referrals since September. 83% of colleges reported an increase on last year but this comes with the added complexity of having to deliver services in a Covid-secure way when staffing resources are stretched to meet the needs of all learners.

For the first time in an AoC survey we asked colleges about attempted suicides. Whilst 6% of colleges stated they were aware of no attempted suicides in the last 12 months, the range from the other colleges was from 1 to 44 with a median of 7, which is very concerning and requires action.

Sadly, it’s not just the students who are struggling, with 65% of colleges seeing an increase in staff accessing services. However, it is great to see that these services are available in 90% of our colleges through wellbeing sessions and specialist support groups for autism, menopause and terminal illness for example.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of college students?

College students have been hugely affected by the closure of colleges during the two national lockdowns. Whilst learning has continued online, our recent research shows that 77% of 16-18 year olds are performing below expectations on their course, with this number dropping to 69% for adult students. The majority of students are one to four months behind where they would normally be expected to be as of March 2021 (75% of 16-18 y olds and 71% of adults). Data from AoC Spring Survey on catch up funding and remote education).

Whilst missed learning is a real problem, there are other aspects of college life that students have really missed out on. For example, enrichment activities that foster personal development, social development with college peers, support from staff for those in need, study skills and exam preparation.

These are some of the areas that we hope the government’s recovery plan for education will include alongside support for more subject teaching time.

Can you tell us a bit more about the work your organisation is doing to support better mental health and wellbeing?

Our Mental Health Ambassador programme provides in-depth e-learning for student ambassadors to become advocates for the power of sport and physical activity in their colleges and we currently have 112 active ambassadors across 46 colleges.

Alongside this, 200+ college staff are now fully qualified Mental Health First Aiders and we will be delivering more courses to college staff remotely in 2021/22 having been approved as a remote delivery organisation.

Another key component of our work has been our tutorial resources which have been taken up by 79 colleges and 900 students. The main resource has been downloaded 356 times.

Our tutorial resources provide an off-the-shelf resource for staff to deliver 3 tutorials that emphasise the benefits of sport and physical activity for good mental health.

Do you think attitudes towards mental health have changed over recent years?

AoC and AoC Sport’s mental health work has played a part in bringing support staff and physical activity staff closer together in colleges.

61% of colleges say there are good relationships between staff responsible for physical activity and staff supporting student wellbeing, with only 4% saying there are no links.  This compares to only 31% saying there were good links in the last survey and 23% who said there were none (2017).

What are your hopes for mental health in sport and physical activity in the future?

AoC Sport plans to continue to develop current programmes in staff Mental Health First Aid, student tutorial resources and the Mental Health Ambassador programme. We have lots of ideas for how to improve the message and widen the reach of these programmes in 2021/22 and beyond so now we just need to find the time to do the work!

Dean Hardman, Director of Sport and Student Experience at AoC Sport, said,The vision ought to incorporate both the way in which organisations in the sector focus on and prioritise the mental health of their staff and also how participants and volunteers’ mental health is considered.

“In both cases I would hope and expect the prioritising of good mental health and wellbeing to be integrated into all decision making and activities. Good progress has been made in recent years, but my vision would be that mental health is considered an integral aspect of any programme development or operational plan and that all staff, volunteers and participants recognise that the sector prioritises mental health “at source”.