Please note that What Works Wellbeing will close operations on 30 April 2024.  Read more
Oct 10, 2019 | by Nancy Hey

What’s being done to improve student mental health and wellbeing?

This week’s blog pulls together all the research and activity happening to understand and improve student mental health and wellbeing. We outline our work with Universities UK and what we are doing to move the evidence base forward, plus recent findings and recommendations from a systematic review on postgraduate research students.

For the last year the Centre partnered with Universities UK to understand what wellbeing evidence and practice looked like in Higher Education to support their Step Change Framework. 

We collated:

  1. the wellbeing research relevant to Higher Education organisations building on our work on adult learning led by Prof Olga Tregaskis at University of East Anglia. 
  2. the practice examples of implementation and innovation in partnership with Gedminite Mikulenaite. You can submit any practice examples, evaluation findings or new research studies

Upcoming research

Our research to date has uncovered a gap in the evidence and we’re now working with our academic partners at the University of Liverpool to carry out a major review of reviews of the global evidence base to inform policy, practice, and research. do a ‘review of reviews’ of the current global knowledge to direct future research. You can sign up to our email alerts for more information before the end of 2019.

Current research

We also partner on a Higher Education Funding Council for England project on Postgraduate Mental Health and wellbeing with our academic partners at the University of East Anglia and we started bringing together the current research on specific projects. 

This review of the experiences of postgraduate research students explored the effectiveness of different interventions, practices and institutional arrangements in supporting postgraduate research students’ mental health.

Key findings

Because the review looked at mainly qualitative studies, and had a relatively small sample size, it was hard to generalise and identify the effectiveness of specific approaches. However, the review does offer insight into the kind of approaches that might work to improve wellbeing. Four distinct but overlapping types of approach were identified.

1. Relationship between postgraduate students and their supervisors 

Practices that aimed to improve the relationship between students and supervisors focused on communication and relational quality. These studies identified increased confidence, autonomy as key wellbeing benefits and recognising the need for emotional support as part of the supervision process.

2. Psychological or emotional resources

A number of studies highlighted the need for postgraduate research students to develop confidence and resilience to thrive and progress in a form of study that is highly independent and can be isolating. Targeted mental health support through counselling and behavioural approaches can reduce anxiety, stress and wellbeing problems, improving course retention. Students also looked to peers, friends and services outside university in building and maintaining psychological resources. 

3. Personal and professional development

Developing a sense of academic identity, career progression and personal and professional development are all key parts of successful study and wellbeing. Coaching or mentoring schemes can help students develop competencies and problem solving skills, providing a more neutral support space than a supervisory relationship. Mentoring schemes can also build a sense of community in facilitating social and emotional support, although peer mentoring can create a burden on some students.

4. Community 

Developing community is key to enable peer support, this can be achieved through shared working space, social events, group training programs and online platforms. A strong community enables problem solving of issues related to the student experience, access to support and skill sharing. Student led approaches can be successful, but they benefit if they have good institutional support. 

What does this mean in practice?

A series of recommendations were identified from the review:

  • Universities can facilitate the development of postgraduate community, using a range of methods suited to specific contexts. Even if student led, some institutional support will be required. Virtual communities can be complementary.
  • Provision of dedicated mental health support services are important, but interventions that facilitate personal development and build resilience are likely to be useful preventative strategies. 
  • Universities can better understand what online sources of support postgraduate students access and use, and what may be most helpful. Online support and social media platforms can provide support, but are not comprehensive, and online spaces can potentially be negative for wellbeing. 
  • The supervisory relationship is important for postgraduate wellbeing. Institutions and individual departments should consider how to embed emotional support in supervisor training and the development and use of tools/strategies to manage and improve the supervisory relationship. 
  • Peer support and mentoring is an important source of good mental health and professional development, but also demands resources and commitment from individuals and may require specialised knowledge or skills. The impact on all postgrads participating needs to be considered. Universities could consider facilitating peer support through professional development and training to encourage buy-in from postgrads and others.

Next steps

Normally the Centre’s review process would include a ‘call for evidence’ of grey literature: unpublished academic and non academic work and evaluations. In this case we will be working with Transforming Across Student Outcomes, a new What Works affiliated Centre, who have just completed their own Call for Evidence which included a wide range of ‘wellbeing’ evidence with an interim report in the Autumn.   

This is an area where new research and projects are moving fast. Most recently: 

  • The Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) have selected grant winners for the ‘What is distinctive about Student Mental Health’ funding round. These will be announced in the next few weeks.  Do sign up for updates.
  • Measurement of student’s wellbeing report by the Higher Education Policy Institute  – you can also see graduate wellbeing 40 months after graduation here (see page 47 for the data).
  • The Office for Students have agreed £14m funding for ten projects as part of their Challenge competition which will launch on Monday 9th July.  The ten projects include over 60 different partners and, with co-funders, is a £14m investment.  This includes an externally commissioned evaluation. 
  • The former Prime Minister announced in June an additional £1m from the Department for Health and Social Care to run another competition later in the year. 


Practice Examples
Dec 5, 2018
Proactively preventing suicide at uni
Jun 9, 2022 | By Nicola Frampton
A slow recovery: student wellbeing and Covid
Guest Blog
Dec 10, 2019 | By Kate Lister
Embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum: a new approach from the Open University
Guest Blog

Sign up to our weekly e-mail list

Sign up to receive resources, insights and evidence as they are published.