Mental health matters: let’s talk evidence

This University Mental Health Day, our Head of Student Equality and Welfare reflects on the Office for Students’ (OfS’s) growing pool of evidence on what works to support student mental health.

No student should be held back by their mental health. The higher education sector has worked well together in recent years to improve the support available for students, but we can – and should – strive for better.   

University Mental Health Day is an opportunity for the sector to reflect on their existing approaches to supporting students and consider where they might improve or develop their methods. 

Evidence matters

For the OfS, student mental health is a key strategic priority. Evidence matters, particularly when it comes to students’ health and wellbeing. We believe that a strong evidence base, rigorous evaluation and effective collaboration can achieve meaningful change for students. Our evidence-based approach has meant that over the past year, we have: 

  • published an independent report looking at insights into joined-up working between higher education and healthcare professionals to support student mental health 
  • launched a new, OfS-funded Evidence Hub in partnership with TASO to improve student mental health support evaluation 
  • boosted funding by £400,000 for Student Minds to accelerate growth of the University Mental Health Charter 
  • published an Insight brief on meeting the mental health needs of students’ which examines the differences in outcomes between students who report having mental health conditions and those who don’t.   

Today, we have published the final programme-level evaluation of our latest Mental Health Funding Competition: Using innovation and intersectional approaches to target mental health support for students. The programme, which launched in 2021, awarded more than £3 million in funding to 18 projects through investment from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Department for Education (DfE).  

This independent evaluation has shown some positive findings about the benefits of targeted mental health support that actively engages students in development from start to finish.

As a direct result of our programme:

  • 3,241 students received targeted support
  • 1,057 students were involved in project development activities
  • 316 staff members received training in student mental health.

Encouragingly, students involved in project development also noticed significant changes in staff understanding as a result of the programme, with 64 per cent of student co-creators agreeing that the support now available is more relevant to student needs.

These projects were innovative. One developed a virtual reality experience to engage first generation students, and another project published a digital toolkit to improve support for part-time, distance and commuter students. They were also collaborative. One implemented peer-to-peer mentoring to support mature students, and another supported care-experienced through student-led workshops.

We were delighted to see more than 80 different partners collaborating on these projects; including other universities and colleges, NHS organisations, students’ unions and a range of other organisations.

We’ve made many of the resources generated by our funding programmes available on our website, and today we grow this pool by adding resources from this latest funding competition. We have also updated our mental health webpages to ensure that every resource is easy to access and utilise, through improved usability and organisation around the themes in the University Mental Health Charter. I encourage you to explore the toolkits, frameworks, case studies and evaluations, and how they can support you to improve your practices.

Supporting a journey of continuous improvement 

Last month, we were delighted to announce a further £400,000 in funding for Student Minds, so that it can continue the important and impactful work that it delivers through its University Mental Health Charter. This funding will support increased staffing, investment in digital infrastructure, new online and in-person events, and engagement with external organisations to understand how learning and insights can inform the development of the programme. 

We encourage all universities and colleges to consider the principles of the Charter framework and explore how these could apply to their own context and improve the support they are offering students. 

In late 2023, we published updated guidance on creating clear and effective access and participation plans. This guidance outlined what we want to see from the sector in their intervention strategies and approaches to addressing poor mental health among students. We ask that all universities and colleges consider the impact of poor student mental health in their approaches to boosting equality of opportunity. 

Rigorous evidence and evaluation 

The driving ambition behind this work has been providing valuable resources for universities and colleges. We want to support the delivery of activities that have evidence of being effective and which are likely to deliver the greatest benefits to students. The resources published today provide evidence of effective practice within the sector. However, relying on these resources alone won’t change outcomes for students. 

Supporting student mental health requires a clear and effective response across the sector, so that all students can get the support they need in times of difficulty. 

It is vital that universities and colleges actively engage with these materials, focus on areas of relevance, and – crucially – on the importance of evaluating the impact of their own activities. This is imperative if we are to ensure that all students can access and succeed in their higher education journey. 

This University Mental Health Day, I hope that we can inspire conversations, take action and create change for the students of today and tomorrow.

Read the evaluation report


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