Mental health supports are in place for FET learners, but more work remains to be done

28 Oct 2022
AONTAS research has found a lack of information on mental health supports for Further Education and Training (FET) learners and a disparity in the provision of psychological counselling across programmes. Here, AONTAS Research Officer Dr Laura Lovejoy considers the implications of our most recent findings for learner mental health.

In Higher Education, student wellbeing and mental health have received increased attention in recent years, as reflected in My World-2: National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland, the Union of Students in Ireland’s National Report on Student Mental Health in Third Level Education, and the Higher Education Authority’s National Student Mental Health and Suicide Prevention FrameworkResearch by Grace Harrison and Evelyn Gordon (2021) shows that “the mental health of university-level students has become a growing concern internationally.” These publications provide a clear impetus for ongoing mental health interventions for Higher Level students in Ireland.

Three learners speaking on a panel at the AONTAS National FET Learner Forum report

Research on the subject conducted by Marie Rooney in 2017 suggests that mental health difficulties are “becoming more commonly disclosed and discussed in Ireland,” and that “the FET learner population may have particular vulnerabilities.” In fact, Rooney suggests that mental health difficulties may even be more prevalent among FET learners than other learner cohorts and the general population.

Multiple AONTAS annual reports have reflected the ongoing issue of learners’ mental ill-health. From our research with thousands of learners through the AONTAS National FET Learner Forum, we know that the level of mental health distress experienced by FET learners is at least equivalent to that of Higher-Level students. Mental health has been raised as a problem and potential barrier to successfully completing an educational course in FET by learners through the Forum for several years, with mental ill-health recurring as a topic in our research reports dating as far back as 2017.

The Need for Mental Health Support

Our 2017 National FET Learner Forum Advisory Report, for example, found that “FET providers need to offer more wide-ranging support structures for learners in the area of mental health.” Our Annual Synthesis Report 2020-2021 found that 59% of respondents said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that learners “would like more mental health supports put in place.”

Mental health difficulties among FET learners were particularly exacerbated during the pandemic period, with learners reporting feelings of isolation, disconnectedness, and low motivation when their learning was conducted entirely remotely. In 2020, the AONTAS Research Team published our COVID-19 Learner Report, which presents a comprehensive view of adult learners’ experiences of FET during the pandemic. One of the report’s key findings was that learners struggled with mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19, with Travellers, Roma and learners in Direct Provision at greater risk. The research shows that 48% of learners from the Roma or Traveller community, 43% of learners living in Direct Provision, and 42% of learners with a disability struggled with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on this evidence, in our advocacy work, we recommend greater investment in the provision of digital and in-person mental health support services for learners who are struggling or at risk of mental health difficulties.This concerning data suggests the need to build the evidence base for increased mental health supports for FET learners. Our most recent qualitative and quantitative findings in the Annual Synthesis Report 2021-2022, are presented under the headings “Areas Working Well” and “Areas for Improvement.” Learners who participated in the National FET Learner Forum last year identified Mental Health as one of the areas where they feel most supported. This is encouraging, given the recurrence of mental health as an area of concern in previous reports.

Access to Mental Health Support

Yet, mental health was also identified as an area for continued improvement. A closer look at the qualitative data can give a deeper insight into this. Learners have reported increased visibility of mental health concerns and a growing culture of openness around mental health in FET. This culture of open discussion around mental health is supported on both an institutional and an individual level.

For example, learners have noted the advertisement of a Mental Health Week in specific colleges of Further Education. Tutors also emerged as providing a significant amount of support when it comes to learner mental health. Comments from learners in focus groups reflect a gradual softening of stigma towards mental ill-health, with learners expressing the views that low moods and emotional difficulties were afforded similar levels of empathy, concern, and flexibility as physical illnesses.

As one learner expressed: “I know you can talk one-to-one with our coordinator if you're experiencing any kind of issue. You can speak with each other and try and work around it. Our course coordinator is very much open-minded on that side of things.”

Some learners also reported having access to psychological counselling sessions through their colleges of Further Education: “We have counsellors that come in twice per week for anyone who wants one-to-one therapy. Our centre is really mental-health oriented.”

Yet, this access was inconsistently applied across Education and Training Boards and between Higher Level and Further Education.

The Benefits of Further Support

Many learners were unaware of the mental health supports available to them and need more signposting in order to benefit from these supports. Troublingly, learners’ direct experiences with psychological counselling vary across Education and Training Boards. Specifically, learners from multiple Education and Training Boards requested greater access to dedicated mental health supports like psychological counselling.

Our research through the Forum, which is the most comprehensive and largest national-scale research into FET learner experience to date, provides ample evidence that FET learners would benefit from psychological counselling as much as Higher-Level students. This makes a case for the expansion of existing psychological counselling services within FET. 

I am a Student Associate Member of the Irish Association for Humanistic and Integrative Pyschotherapists, and a psychotherapist in training. It is my view that psychological counselling sessions are a key intervention in the national problem of student mental ill-health.

Owing to a range of factors, including the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial hardships, immigrant status, high workloads, and domestic responsibilities, FET learners are equally, if not more, susceptible to mental health difficulties, compared with Higher Education students.

The mental health findings of AONTAS’ most recent Annual Synthesis Report lay out a clear rationale for increasing expenditure in the area of mental health for FET colleges across Ireland, with a particular focus on the recruitment of psychotherapists to meet the demand for psychological counselling for learners in Further Education. 

Download and explore the findings of the 2021-2022 National FET Learner Forum Annual Synthesis Report.

Find out more about our Learner Voice work and the National FET Learner Forum.