Student mental health: joining the (intersectional) dots

On University Mental Health Day, Chris Millward announces the launch of a new funding competition and discusses the need for intersectional approaches in targeting support for mental health among students.

Please note: this funding competition was relaunched on 1 October 2020 after being paused in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pins connected with different coloured wires

The mental health of students has been a key priority for the Office for Students since our inception. Not only do we hear directly from students that this is an important issue for them, but we also know from our own access and participation data that the likelihood of positive outcomes can be heavily influenced by mental health.

That’s why I’m delighted to be able to announce, on University Mental Health Day, a new OfS competition focusing on mental health among students. With funding of £1 million from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), this programme aims to strengthen links between the health and higher education sectors, and thereby to improve support for students with mental ill health. We’re looking to invest in collaborative projects which explore how digital technology can help students to more easily access information, advice and care, in line with the NHS England Long Term Plan.

The competition will complement our existing £14.5 million mental health Challenge Competition programme. Through this programme, a network of 10 projects across the country with over 50 partners – including universities, further education colleges, sixth form colleges, local NHS trusts and charities – is working together to improve student mental health outcomes.

A targeted approach

We want to use this additional funding to focus on groups of students who experience specific challenges with their mental health that can impact their ability to access, succeed in, and progress from higher education. This could include students such as care leavers, or those who are estranged from their families, who may be at greater risk of developing poor mental health as a result of the additional pressures they may face. It might also encompass students whose mode of study might put them at greater risk of developing poor mental health, or cause them to experience barriers to seeking or accessing support – for example, those on placements or studying part-time, coming from overseas or commuting to study.

Understanding intersectionality

Through this competition and in our wider work on equality of opportunity in higher education we’re also keen to understand more about the intersectionality of particular characteristics: how identities and characteristics such as race, socioeconomic status, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation, for example, combine and interact to create and compound inequalities.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read our Insight brief, published in November of last year, which details some of the stark differences in outcomes for different groups of students with declared mental health conditions. For instance, the degree attainment gap between black and white students with a declared mental health condition in the most recent set of data is 26.8 percentage points. We will be doing further work on the intersection of race and mental health in the coming year.

The Insight brief also looked at the experience of part-time students and found that those who came from areas categorised as the most deprived in Britain were most likely to report a mental health condition, while those from the least deprived areas were least likely to do so.

Innovation, integration, diversity: what we’re looking for

The aims of the competition are to:

  • Explore innovative approaches to tackling some of the barriers and challenges faced by particular groups of students who may be more at risk across the full student lifecycle including prevention, early intervention, and provision of support.
  • Develop and test approaches that enable a more joined up and integrated service offer between the higher education and the health sectors that meet the needs of particular groups of students effectively.
  • Widen reach to include a more diverse pool of providers, enabling us to test and share effective practice in a wider range of different contexts for students.
  • Build on issues identified from our existing mental health Challenge Competition and our wider sector work.

Since the launch of the current mental health Challenge Competition, there are now a greater number of providers able to access the OfS’s funding competitions. With this programme, we are looking to reach a diverse pool of providers and are committed to working with potential bidders through this process.

If your university or college is interested in submitting a bid for this funding, please review the full criteria and send us your completed bid template. Please contact [email protected] if you have any questions.

Mental health and wellbeing are complex issues. We still have a long way to go, but alignment between higher education and health sectors is crucial to provide students with the help and support they need. We look forward to working with the successful projects, and sharing learning and evaluation with the sector.

Read the bidding guidance Find out more about the funding competition


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Published 05 March 2020
Last updated 01 October 2020
01 October 2020
Added date of funding competition relaunch

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