Collaboration and Leadership for improving Mental Health and Wellbeing

Collaboration and Leadership for improving Mental Health and Wellbeing

22nd October 2018

With a growing focus on mental health and wellbeing across the whole of the education landscape, many are asking what improving mental health and wellbeing means for educational leaders, and the ways in which they collaborate. Dragana J Ramsden tries to find out.

Last week, people around the globe showed their support for World Mental Health Day: an opportunity to show support and understanding for better mental health and wellbeing. Mental health problems can affect anyone, and the impact of such problems can be felt in any time or place. We also know that there are many social determinants impacting on mental health so the people with difficult social, economic and environmental circumstances are more likely to experience poor mental health.  Of course, meeting the challenges of poor mental health is no easy journey. But how can we best strive to navigate these difficult waters and rough tides?

Working as a research fellow with the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL), I examined what improving mental health and wellbeing means for how adult community learning (ACL) leaders engage in collaborative working with mental health services. Considering a range of complex challenges that stand in the way of collaborative working, I wanted to support the adult community learning sector to understand its own leadership challenge. I wanted to strengthen its capacity for collaborative solutions.

Too often, we see mental health being dealt with as a solely medical problem. The narrative needs to be broadened, beyond mental health being considered as a narrow medical challenge, and one that we all must engage with.

More than that, we need to broaden the scope of our existing systems and structures, and to break down the siloes between them. Many of us know that adult community learning (ACL) has lots of positive benefits on health and wellbeing. This is in addition to its impact on adults’ skills and their ability to improve their own circumstances. We also know that there is some good collaboration between ACL and primary care mental health services (PCMHS). Evidence shows that primary care services are stretched, and many adult education providers are already engaging with individuals and communities who have difficult social, economic and environmental circumstances and may find it more difficult to access ‘mainstream’ support. I wanted to find out how collaboration between the two sectors and local communities can be developed and up scaled across the UK. I wanted to know if there is scope to better support our communities by further harnessing each other’s expertise.

Two core questions to answer first: Is this collaboration viable? What are the benefits of collaboration and whether stakeholders share the same values? In short: yes. Equality, inclusion, quality, respect and collaborative working were all values shared and prioritised across education, primary care health services, and adult learners who took part in the research. The basis for collaborative work already exists. The research found that collaboration can help to address adults’ needs in more holistic ways. This can bring significant social value in reducing inequalities in health.

So what could a shared vision of collaborative working look like? It was obvious amongst participants that the expectations for ACL remained consistent: ACL is there to help. This principally included the promotion of mental health and wellbeing of learners, building the resilience of individuals and communities, and working to tackle inequalities in access to services. Not only was there agreement on these principles and values, there was strong acknowledgement that this collaboration needs to be part of a much bigger system of support and backed up by the government’s policy. The must therefore allow for flexible local models, with each partner taking on differentiated roles which are well defined by local communities and learners.

The biggest challenges are the current siloed ways of working, on national, local and organisational levels. Lack of joined up thinking at the national policy level, lack of accountability in central government for mental health in ACL, short organisational memory, and competition among local providers were just some of the challenges cited. How do we address these difficulties? The research found that what the ACL leadership requires, more than anything, is the humility to accept it does not have all the answers. It needs to be open to learning and doing things in differently. Partnered with this humility must be the courage to pursue the answers to these challenges through unchartered territories. This must include an unwavering belief in the inclusion agenda and in the importance of the social value of learning within the social determinants of mental health.

Only by working together, can we answer these pressing and probing problems, and deliver improved mental health and wellbeing for all.

Last week, Dragana J Ramsden sat down with Paul Grainger to discuss her work examining the shared values and benefits of collaborative working between the primary care mental health service and adult and community learning sectors. The webinar, and her research, can be found here: https://fetl.org.uk/adult-community-learning-and-mental-health-primary-care/ 

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