Student mental health and wellbeing

Insights from higher education providers and sector experts

Pollard E, Vanderlayden J, Alexander K, Borkin H, O’Mahony J  |   | Department for Education | Jun 2021

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The Department for Education (DfE) commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), Advance HE and the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) to engage with the higher education (HE) sector to gain an institutional perspective on the main issues around student mental health and wellbeing.

The research involved engagement with expert stakeholders, case studies with HE providers, and online surveys with senior staff responsible for student health and wellbeing in HE providers (with all data collected prior to the Coronavirus pandemic).

HE providers offer a wide range of services and are looking to further develop their services to support their students with their mental health and wellbeing needs and to promote positive mental health and wellbeing. These services cover the spectrum from wellbeing initiatives through early intervention activities to targeted support for those with very specific support needs. Services differ in terms of who delivers them, how they are delivered, when and for how long they are delivered, who they are aimed at, and the resources involved; and providers tend to offer a combination of approaches to respond to their contexts. Our survey categorised support activities into three groups but it is clear that many providers view their services in a holistic or fluid manner, with considerable overlap between services to support wellbeing and those to support mental health needs.

For many, their work is backed by a clear strategy or policies which have evolved and will continue to evolve over time to address changing environments and emerging challenges. These strategies tend to set out providers’ ambitions, how they plan to achieve their goals, roles and responsibilities (and boundaries), and how to assess progress.

Providers collect data to try to understand the extent of the demand for support with mental health across their student population but appear to struggle with assessing their students’ wellbeing needs. Most providers also collect data to learn about the impact, effectiveness and the added-value of their services to help them to improve their provision and make resourcing decisions. However there is a lack of understanding about the real effectiveness of wellbeing support.

All providers recognise the importance of monitoring and evaluation, and many feel they could do better. Evidence gaps persist and there is a desire to do more to improve evidence and understanding around the influence of HE on students’ mental health and wellbeing, potential mismatches in expectations for and experiences of support, those most at risk and least likely to seek support, and the prevalence and nature of mental health disorders and poor mental wellbeing in the student population.

Some providers use or are therefore planning to introduce student surveys (either bespoke or utilising standardised measures of wellbeing) and a separate paper to be published by IES will share insights from the sector on how to tackle student surveys focused on mental health and wellbeing.