Student mental health interventions: state of the evidence
What is it, and who is involved?
The review establishes what we know about effective ways to improve student mental health and wellbeing. It is a first step to develop the evidence base, revealing big gaps in the current knowledge that can start to be addressed by the UUK #StepChange framework, University Mental Health Charter, OFS Challenge funding, SMARTEN research seed funding and TASO.
It was led by Dr Joanne Worsley and colleagues from our Community Wellbeing team at the University of Liverpool with advisors from our adult learning team at the University of East Anglia, Universities UK (including its Student Mental Health Advisory Group), Student Minds, Association of Colleges Mental Health Policy Group, the Office for Students, the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMARTEN) and our What Works Network colleagues at Education Endowment Foundation and Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).
The review was commissioned and funded by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, following identification of an evidence gap.
Mental health matters to overall wellbeing at all stages of life, and its impact is relatively big. There is growing interest in taking action to improve mental health, and promote wellbeing. This is true across a wide range of organisations, including Higher and Further Education institutions.
Through research and clinical education, universities and colleges play an important role in protecting and improving mental health and wellbeing in the UK. How universities and colleges create the conditions for those studying and working there – as with schools, workplaces and communities – is now gaining greater attention and funding. Making sure that what is done is effective, cost-effective and – even if
well-intentioned – doesn’t cause harm, is now a priority. This research establishes the global evidence base for all sectors to build on.
The review identifies what research has been reviewed. It applies to academically published research, published in English, in countries similar to the UK to produce a summary of the global knowledge base.
- Where review evidence is not strong, it is possible that there are research studies and they have not yet been reviewed.
- It is likely that much activity has not been researched yet because:
- it is methodologically more difficult to research some areas
- some activities and disciplines attract more research funding.
- Action in this area is at an early stage, so research may only just be getting started.
Different types of activity
Below are different types of activity aimed at improving student mental health and wellbeing.
System and whole institution approaches
How to co-ordinate what to do and when.
Methodological approaches are needed.
Whole population wellbeing
Non-‘mental health’ interventions with good mental health outcomes e.g. housing, finance and staff training.
Mental distress and early mental health problems
Brief interventions - evidence could well be there to be reviewed.
High level clinical interventions
How to identify and assess, and so on.
Support for those with a
pre-existing mental health conditions.
- Interventions to support general student mental health and wellbeing can be effective
- There is a relatively large body of evidence on some specific types of interventions, for example mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Current evidence indicates that these are the most effective for both emotional wellbeing and performance when skills are taught, supervised, and one-to-one
- Project and research (evaluation) activity in this area should focus on effects over longer timescales and what works for whom, when, how, and for how much including being clearer on student group and the selection for intervention
- Test additional psychological interventions that have been shown to be effective in other populations and settings
- There is limited review (and maybe primary) level evidence in other areas that look promising from studies, or related evidence bases, including:
- promoting positive mental health
- wider determinants of mental health, for example living and social environment, finance & debt, curriculum design, sense of belonging and loneliness
- Students attending Further Education colleges in the UK.
- Early intervention and specific student groups and courses.
- Joining up between Further and Higher Education, and other services.
- Suicide prevention
This research identifies existing evidence reviews, and their methodological quality, published during the last 20 years. There may be areas, or types of intervention, where there have been (primary) studies. But these studies have not been assessed and synthesised yet (reviewed). There may also be areas of established practice that have not been studied.
Of the 23 reviews we found nine of ‘high methodological quality’ which means we can be more confident about the findings, 11 reviews of medium quality, and five of lower quality.
The people the studies included in the reviews looked at were mainly in higher education with two in further education. Many studies were done in the US/North America with others done in Europe, Asia and Australia. They covered undergraduates, graduates and professional students including in technical schools, with some studies of students of specific subjects.
The studies in the reviews covered a range of related outcomes including: anxiety, depression, stress, general psychological distress, wellbeing, mood, suicide-related outcomes, mindfulness, social-emotional skills, self-perception, interpersonal relationships, and sleep.
While we cannot yet determine and rank which interventions work best, where and for whom we can conclude that for student populations:
- Where evidence is more developed, roll out and scale up appropriately.
- Where evidence is more developed, evaluate the impact in more detail
- Compare between different types of project as well as a ‘no action’ control.
- Look at which interventions helped with which outcomes.
- Look in more detail at effect size and clinical significance (‘real world’ effects) on both positive mental health and other measures such as performance, learning/teaching, social connection and potential adverse impacts.
- Look at impact over time including on wider life satisfaction now measured in many areas including graduate and workplace surveys.
- Where there are evidence gaps – develop a good quality primary evidence base and review it:
- Consider mapping existing practices and comparing to the evidence base – see practice map.
- Carry out evidence reviews where there are initial indications there are primary studies to review – see evidence review methods guide.
- Do, or fund, evaluations (primary studies) of existing established practices where they exist but primary studies haven’t been done.
- Use appropriate scale and research methods for innovations.
- Encourage evaluation built in to all projects and disseminate the results of that evaluation .
- Update in five years time – to see evidence generation in response and broaden to grey literature.
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