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Jul 30, 2018 | by Centre

Academic perspective: Research gaps in student mental health

This week’s guest blog is from Dr Nicola Byrom, a lecturer in psychology at King’s College London and founder of Student Minds, the student mental health charity. She shares her concerns about the gaps in understanding in student mental health and the challenges in the research.

Over the past few years we have seen a welcome escalation in focus on mental health among the student population in higher education. With the Universities UK step change framework and Student Minds announcing the start of work to develop a charter mark for mental health in higher education, we are seeing positive steps towards improvements across the sector.

As a researcher, I’m concerned that our research has not been keeping pace. To make strategic policy decisions, a sector needs robust research. Without this, we risk making ad hoc changes, which may have no effect, or worse still, may aggravate the problem.

There are serious gaps in our understanding around student mental health. Indeed, only two things are clear: the number of students who feel they are experiencing mental distress is rising (NUS, 2015; Neves & Hillman, 2017; Smith, 2016; Students, 2016) and so is demand for mental health services (Brinkworth & Jenkin, 2016; Colleges, 2017; Williams et al., 2015).

Challenges in understanding student mental health

Evidence gapWhile we know that young adults, who make up 89% of the student population (HESA, 2017), are at higher risk for developing mental health problems (Kessler & Wang, 2008), we do not know whether mental health difficulties are more or less common among the student population in the UK. We urgently need research to focus in on understanding what is distinctive about student mental health.

Evidence gapTo add complexity to this challenge, every university is different and with substantive variations in the student profile between institutions, we should expect substantive variation in the mental health needs of the students. That means that while national research will have some value, individual institutions need to work to understand what the demographic profile of their students means for their mental health needs.

Differences in the mental health of young adults in and out of higher education

While it is important to understand what is distinctive about student mental health, simply asking whether mental health is better for young adults in or out of higher education, may equally miss the point. Recent research by Mortier and colleagues (2018) analysing data from World Health Organisation Mental Health Surveys, demonstrates the challenge effectively. The study, which did not include data from the UK, identified that the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours was lower among the young adults in higher education than their peers not in education. What does this tell us? It could suggest:

  1. That the university environment has a preventative effect on the development of suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
  2. That young people experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours are less able to reach their academic potential and access higher education? Or
  3. That students experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours are likely to drop out of university, unable to manage in the higher education environment?

While we might like to believe the first interpretation, the data analysis highlighted that the presence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours prior to matriculation increased the odds of a young person dropping out of university. This indicates that managing mental health difficulties in higher education is challenging.


Supporting students in higher education who experience mental health difficulties is not simply an issue of provision of health care, instead, it will often be a necessary support to enable a young adult to reach their academic potential and engage with higher education.

To contact Dr Nicola Byrom email nicola.byrom@kcl.ac.uk

What research are you doing?

Are you doing research into student mental health. Tell us about it. Your research could go towards developing a set of recommendations to improve wellbeing within universities.  Get in touch and we’ll follow up to find out what worked, what the learning was, and how other universities could take it forward.


Association of Colleges (2017). Association of Colleges (AoC) survey on students with mental health conditions in Further Education.

Brinkworth, R., & Jenkin, T. (2016). Overburdened and underfunded: The mental health crisis at Britains universities., The Tab. Retrieved from http://thetab.com/uk/2016/09/24/overburdened-underfunded-mental-health-crisis-britains-universities-18837

Higher Education Statistics Agency (2017). ‘Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the United Kingdom 2015/16’ statistical release. Retrieved from: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/12-01-2017/sfr242-student-enrolments-and-qualifications

Kessler, R. C., & Wang, P. (2008). The descriptive epidemiology of commonly occuring mental disorders in the United States. Annual Review of Public Health, 29, 151-126.

Mortier, P., Auerbach, R. P., Alonso, J., Axinn, W. G., Cuijpers, P., Ebert, D. D., … & Nock, M. K. (2018). Suicidal thoughts and behaviors among college students and same-aged peers: results from the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 53(3), 279-288.

Neves, J., & Hillman, N. (2017). Student Academic Experience Survey. In HEA-HEPI (Ed.).

National union of Students (2015). Mental Health Poll Nov 15.

Smith, M. (2016). One in four students suffer from mental health problems: YouGov.

Students, U. (2016). Student Resilience: Unite Students Insight Report.

Williams, M., Coare, P., Marvell, R., Pollard, E., Houghton, A., & Anderson, J. (2015). Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs; a report to HEFCE: Institute for Employment Studies Researching Equity, Access and Partnership.

Read the case study from KCLSU on how they embed wellbeing in the student community with their Wellbeing Coordinator.

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