What works to support student mental health? How evaluation can help develop effective practice

In Mental Health Awareness Week, our Director for Fair Access and Participation looks at how the Office for Students (OfS) is providing a foundation of evidence to support the higher education sector’s efforts to improve support for student mental health.

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Mental Health Awareness Week is a chance for the whole higher education sector to reflect on the mental health challenges facing many university and college students. The numbers of students declaring a mental health condition continue to increase, more than doubling from five years ago. Even so, many students are probably still not sharing this information with their university or college.

As in so much else, the pandemic has exposed more forcefully those problems that already existed and made them worse. The Mental Health Foundation has documented real challenges amongst the student population, including spikes in loneliness, feelings of hopelessness, and anxiety. Staff at universities and colleges are often working tirelessly to keep their students safe and well.  

Understanding what works

The OfS is underpinning sector efforts to improve its support for student mental health. Our projects include those focused on supporting students as they transition into and through higher education; providing targeted support for specific groups of students; and improving links between the health and higher education sectors.

The higher education sector has worked well together in recent years to improve the support available for student mental health. The OfS's challenge and funding competition programmes have leveraged over £20 million of funding, enabling universities, colleges and partners across the country to develop collaborative and innovative projects to improve student mental health outcomes, alongside other work such as Student Minds’ University Mental Health Charter and Universities UK’s Stepchange Framework. These are valuable resources. But a further, crucial piece is understanding what works in student mental health. 

In my speech to the TASO (Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) annual conference last month I outlined the importance of contributing to improving our knowledge base today so that more and better can be done tomorrow. I was talking about equality of opportunity and access to university – but the same can be said of supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing during their time at university or college. As TASO found in its evidence review published today, there are a number of groups at risk of suffering from poor mental health and as a result, these groups also experience poorer outcomes. We want students to succeed both by enriching them throughout their academic experience and providing them with assurance that their mental health matters. We need to do this with the same open-mindedness and commitment to the evidence that guides other fields of academic study.

That is why I am delighted to announce today a new national programme to mobilise the latest effective practice to support student mental health throughout the sector. This is a great opportunity to improve the rigour of evaluation of student mental health interventions and to ensure more evidence is generated and shared.

Next summer TASO and its consortium partners will be publishing a central online hub with the aim of joining research and practice to improve mental health outcomes for students. The hub’s resources will be freely available and accessible to facilitate engagement from universities and colleges, students’ unions, academics, mental health charities and other stakeholders. Through the hub, TASO and its partners will provide a national voice, advocating for what works to support student mental health, in which contexts, and why. The student voice is being built into the project from the start, ensuring that students’ experiences are an integral element.

Ongoing impact

The OfS will continue to provide strong support in this area, including ensuring our knowledge of what works grows. All our funded projects are required to carry out robust evaluation of their work, and we have also commissioned independent programme evaluations, in keeping with our wider commitment to evaluation and expanding knowledge of effective practice. The Mental Health Challenge Competition programme is currently generating a wide range of learning and practical resources. As the programme wraps up, at the end of June 2022, we’ll bring these resources together in one place and publish them on our website, so that the whole sector can benefit from them.

In the autumn, we will be publishing the final report on the Mental Health Challenge Competition programme from the independent evaluators, Wavehill. This will include an exploration of the impacts of the programme on students, staff and the sector, its long-term value, and what works in support for student mental health. We already have initial findings from earlier reports from Wavehill and resources on our website, including case studies, toolkits and training materials from these and previous funding programmes.

The new hub will be able to pick up and share the findings from all this work, and our ambition is for the hub to become an essential resource for universities and colleges, helping them to ensure they are delivering activity and support which has been proven to be effective and which delivers the greatest benefits to students. But this resource alone won’t change outcomes for students. Universities and colleges will need to engage with it, identifying resources they want to draw on, and in turn evaluating the impact of their own activities.

Supporting students with their mental health is a good cause in and of itself, but of course, it also forms a core part of work to improve students’ experiences of higher education, their academic outcomes and likelihood of ongoing success. As the new OfS strategy makes clear, quality higher education requires equality of opportunity for all, and those who contribute to and use the hub will be contributing to both those essential areas of work.


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Published 13 May 2022

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