East Durham is one of the most deprived areas in England and has suffered severely from the demise of the coal mining industry. County Durham has the highest levels of worklessness in the country, with emotional and mental health problems cited as the main cause of incapacity benefits.1
The surrounding area of the college’s main campus (Peterlee) is one of the most deprived within the county. County Durham’s health profile for life expectancy is lower than the national average, and early death rates due to heart disease and stroke are higher than the average for England.
East Durham College has focused on its emotional health services for students and staff by supporting interventions that promote emotional and mental health resilience and effective early treatment to prevent emotional or mental health problems escalating.
East Durham College is a medium-sized further education college in the North East of England. The college is spread over two campuses, with associated satellite bases. The campus at Willerby Grove, near Peterlee town centre, has a new £36 million building. It is one of the most modern facilities in the region and one which staff, students and the public at large are extremely proud of. The new building has considerably improved the morale and mental wellbeing of staff and students.
The Houghall campus offers a range of land-based studies and is based in the suburbs of Durham City Centre. Both campuses sit within the County of Durham.
East Durham College provides students with a range of apprenticeship schemes, such as BTEC qualifications and NVQs. The apprenticeship schemes are focused specifically on training in land-based industries, engineering and manufacturing technology, business administration, bricklaying, joinery, and hairdressing.
Prior to Healthy FE, East Durham College had a number of committees designated to emotional health and wellbeing which were designed to support staff and students. The various general health committees did not map to the whole college strategic health plan, and therefore whilst they were individually successful, an integrated group was required to maintain the impetus and impact of emotional health and wellbeing for staff and students.
East Durham College consolidated the fragmented committees into one group, with one strategic aim, to ensure synergy within the approach and real benefits for the staff and students. Healthy FE has given the college the structure and drive to achieve this.
The Iris Health Group was a response to this need, named after Iris, the Greek goddess, who is the personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods. A rainbow denoted the various health and wellbeing strands that the group represents, whilst the messenger makes reference to the message of health and wellbeing for all staff and students.
‘At East Durham College the emphasis has been on consolidating the excellent work already done by the individual groups into one overall strategy, which has galvanised and advanced the Healthy FE agenda at the college.’ Ian Forrest, student liaison officer
‘Quick wins’ have been put into place at the inception of the Iris Health Group in order to gain impetus for the group and to serve as a promotion for the new integrated agenda at the college. These have included:
- stress balls distributed to staff
- a stress guide placed upon the HR extranet for staff to access at their convenience
- healthy food literature distributed to students and staff
- physiotherapy introduced for all staff.
Longer-term developments as part of the Iris Health Group have included:
- Partnership working between East Durham College and its local PCT, NHS County Durham. A number of emotional health and wellbeing awareness sessions, aimed at staff, have been developed to ensure that the college staff can better understand and deal with emotional health issues in their students. This has included building resilience to stress and general healthy eating training events.
- A training session on emotional health and wellbeing has been delivered by the Early Intervention Services NHS Trust. The session was called the ‘Early Intervention in Psychosis awareness’ and the aim was to train the college staff to better understand what psychosis is, what the early signs of psychosis are, and how to address any psychosis issues in their students.
- North East better health at work award is East Durham College’s milestone to actively promote workplace health. The college is working towards the Bronze Award, with one of the criteria of this scheme being to promote positive emotional health and well-being through employee support, training and awareness-raising.
- Supporting staff in emotional and mental health issues. The Iris Health Group is not only training staff to recognise emotional and mental health difficulties in students, but is also promoting staff self-efficacy and encouraging colleagues to support each other in building resilience to stress.
- Staff assigned as ‘Buddies’ was introduced after feedback from the college’s Staff Voice Survey. ‘Buddies’ act as a sounding board for staff to discuss their concerns or issues confidentially, and can be approached informally, when they are unsure of the right direction to take. This has been very successful and the college continues to promote this activity.
- ‘How to stay safe on the internet’ is part of the safeguarding enrichment activities for students. Pamphlets and information are given about how to report cyber-bullying to ensure that the strains of the internet do not have a negative impact on a student’s emotional and mental wellbeing.
Due to the current economic climate the toughest challenge to promoting emotional and mental health for staff and students has been financial. Investing in schemes that are cost effective and will deliver benefits for staff and students has required considerable strategic planning.
The Iris Health Group has given staff the motivation to continue and build on the already sound work they were doing previously within the individual committees.
Since forming the Iris Health Group as part of Healthy FE:
- The College has completed the benchmarking Bronze Award for better health at work for its staff. The criterion to achieve this award is used as the framework to test the effectiveness of the Iris Health Group.
- The ‘Early Intervention into Psychosis’ session with the PCT has been popular, with over 100 staff having already attended. Those who have attended have felt that their expectations and objectives for the session were ‘fully met’. Additional follow on sessions are planned for the next academic year.
- Staff have a ‘better understanding of psychosis and mental health issues’ since the college’s involvement in Healthy FE, as demonstrated by the outstanding feedback received from the attendees to the ‘Early Intervention in Psychosis’ tutorial.
- Students are actively involved in extracurricular activities, with an increase in the number of clubs that are consistently full to capacity. This is a good indication that emotional health awareness and promotion is improving. Studies have shown that an increased participation in extra-curricular activities leads to better emotional health, since individuals feel a sense of belonging when they are part of a group.
The launch of the Iris Health Group, with its various activities to promote awareness of and intervention strategies for early mental psychosis and emotional health needs, has meant that staff members are now more aware of the importance of emotional health on overall health amongst their students. The Iris Health Group has served as a catalyst for more emotional and mental health aimed sessions for both students and staff.
Plans for the future include: a bullying awareness week, weight classes, free fruit days, sporting events, and greater promotion of health improvement opportunities for all students and staff via e-mails and poster campaigns.