Being open about addressing mental health in tertiary education settings
Brandon Taylor, Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy Manager, TAFE Queensland
Mental health concerns continue to dominate the conversation, especially as we move from the immediate pandemic response to less strict public health measures and begin to take stock of the past three years.
At TAFE Queensland, mental health has long been on the agenda, as Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy Manager Brandon Taylor told us in 2019.
Since then, TAFE Queensland has weathered the challenges of the COVID pandemic along with the rest of the sector, and learned a few new things along the way.
As a first step TAFE has been tackling staff mental health and wellbeing and building their capacity to assist students. Reflecting on what’s changed at TAFE Queensland over the past few years, Brandon said the organisation is now in the second year of its Mindarma evidence-based e-learning program. Mindarma is designed to support staff wellbeing and resilience and is available to all staff members.
“We have seen a significant uptake in this program and are achieving on average an almost 8 per cent increase in self-reported adaptive resilience,” he said.
In response to interest in mental health first aid training from educators, TAFE Queensland is now taking a coordinated approach to mental health first aid across the whole organisation – and state – with 12 new mental health first aid instructors on board to provide training to colleagues and peers.
“Additionally, we provide training workshops and webinars to discuss and explore the challenges of student mental health. In these sessions we enable the very real issues and concerns that educators face, to be voiced and explored before moving into the practical strategies that educators can employ and implement.”
There are some things that haven’t changed, however. The mental health and wellbeing of students is an increasing concern, Brandon said, with several external research reports on mental health providing a valuable overview to staff and students about the nature of mental health and wellbeing in Australia.
“We reviewed reports from Mission Australia Youth Surveys , the Black Dog Institute: Youth mental health and others to understand the external evidence. From here we were able to explore the common threads of these reports with similar challenges faced by our own students. Through a state-wide workshop, with over 60+ stakeholders, we discussed and explored options and activities that we could consider moving forward,” Brandon explained.
“It was evident that many staff appreciated the opportunity to have a forum that openly and honestly discussed many aspects of student and staff mental health.”
And although the pandemic has had plenty of downsides, Brandon acknowledged that COVID-19 has brought about a “willingness to openly discuss mental health”. That’s not to say that mental health was not an issue prior to the pandemic; he adds that mental health was a “significant issue” before COVID. Now, though, people are more willing to discuss it.
Other challenges will be familiar to the wider sector.
“In 2020 our biggest challenge was initially the speed of transition to virtual learning coupled with the very practical nature of industry training. Many of us were learning alongside our students as to how best we could make this work,” Brandon said.
There were “surprising discoveries”, like students who found they preferred online learning.
“As we now move into 2023 it is clear that most students do want face-to-face learning, yet we must also consider the benefits that were discovered and how we can incorporate these,” he said.
When working with students facing severe mental health challenges, Brandon has some suggestions for practitioners. He recommends coming from a place of “empathy, respect and supporting others’ dignity” first and foremost.
“Many of our students will experience a mental illness for the first time in the years that they are a student. It will be a time of high anxiety, fear and feeling overwhelmed whilst trying to understand and process the experience of a mental health challenge. Knowing how to best respond and where to encourage the student to access help is key to early intervention,” he explained.
Brandon said it’s important to remember that students may feel overwhelmed by too much information. His team aims to provide clarity as well as choices, so students feel they have somewhere to start.
It’s also important to remember that first principle of emergency response: put your own mask on first. Working with students experiencing severe mental health challenges can be stressful for practitioners too, Brandon said.
“I feel that we have put years of emphasis on why and how we should support our students but probably lost sight of stating how important it is that practitioners and teachers must also look after themselves. As practitioners we can be a wonderful source of information and support but we also experience the ever increasing pace of life, personal and professional stressors and wellbeing concerns,” he said.
Written by: Danielle Kutchel