9 Oct 2023

One in three adult learners say mental health problems affect their ability to learn or study

Adult learners discussing issues at a recent AONTAS FET Learner Forum event

Further Education and Training (FET) learners in Ireland experience a high rate of mental health problems, with more than one in three learners saying mental health problems affect their ability to learn or study. High accommodation costs and issues with transport access can hinder people’s ability to take part in their courses, and add to mental health difficulties.   

Those are among the key findings of AONTAS’ new report, FET Learners and Mental Health in Ireland: Identifying Supports. Developed in collaboration with Jigsaw, the report is based on the experiences of over 2,500 FET learners who took part in research for the National FET Learner Forum from 2022 to 2023.  

We are proud to launch this new report today, on World Mental Health Day 2023, which focuses this year on "Mental health as a universal human right". The fundamental importance of mental health services and supports is strongly backed up by the evidence-based research in our new FET Learners and Mental Health in Ireland report. 

The complete findings will be presented in the AONTAS Learners’ Voices Across Ireland report, which will be launched at the AONTAS Adult Education Summit on 15th November. 

While this report paints a concerning picture about the impact of social and political issues on learners mental health and their ability to learn and focus in their studies, learners also highlighted the mental health support they receive from their Education and Training Boards, with an emphasis on support given by FET tutors.  

Learners would like mental health support in their colleges to be enhanced, with one participant in the National FET Learner Forum saying:  

"The tutors are fantastic, but they can't do everything, so it would be really good if we all had access to a counsellor because if we feel better, we learn better." 

Over half FET learners experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression  

Data suggests more than half of FET learners experience stress, anxiety or depression, with one in three saying this affects their ability to learn or study.

This new report finds that relationships and connection with their peers is crucial to protecting learners’ mental health. It also finds that tutors are an invaluable source of mental health support to learners and that taking part in a FET course has a positive impact on mental health.

It offers opportunities for forming new relationships, healing past negative experiences with education, developing a routine, and building self-confidence through accomplishments. For example, the research shows that learners seeking asylum (those living in Direct Provision or in hotels) reported a greater increase in their self-confidence, resilience, and general wellbeing as a direct result of taking their courses compared with the average.  

Looking to the Future 

The FET Learners and Mental Health in Ireland: Identifying Supports report recommends a need for learners to have more access and availability of appointments with counsellors, and for sessions that are affordable for learners.  

The report also highlights the need for increased travel allowances for learners and the need to liaise with local transport services to expand access to transport for people living in rural areas who are at risk of isolation.  

It also highlights the need for targeted awareness-raising with marginalised groups, such as ethnic minorities and refugees, through site visits and advertising campaigns, to better facilitate their participation in adult education.  

It suggests a need for more advertisement and promotion of available mental health supports in FET colleges and on websites, so learners are more aware of what is available. And it states the need for continued encouragement of tutors to be aware of and able to help support mental health difficulties for learners when they arise.   

According to Ciarán O Cinneoide, Community Education Facilitator with responsibility for learner wellbeing at Tipperary Education and Training Board, “it’s really important that all the members of our community in the ETB are familiar with the services that exist outside of our ETB.” 

He talks about how tutors can inform their learners about the services available so they can access them when needed, “because it’s when they’re outside of the ETB that they may need support.” 

Read the new report, FET Learners and Mental Health in Ireland: Identifying Supports.