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Mar 5, 2020 | by Nancy Hey

Student mental health: state of the evidence

What interventions improve college and university student mental health and wellbeing? Today we publish a ‘review of reviews’ that sets out the state of the evidence. It’s based on 23 evidence reviews from across the world, and within the UK. It was carried out with our academic partners at the University of Liverpool. 

Mental health matters to overall wellbeing at all stages of life; its impact is relatively big. There is growing interest in taking action to protect and improve mental health – and promote wellbeing – in a wide range of organisations, including in Higher and Further Education. But it is not yet clear what actions are most effective.

What’s a ‘review of reviews’?

Pyramid with review of review at the top; followed by systemativ review; and all published research at the bottom.

The student mental health review is a first step to develop the evidence base. It reveals big gaps in the current knowledge, which can begin to be addressed by policy, practice and research. 

In our previous blog we outlined the breadth of actions currently underway. Universities UK’s #StepChange framework, Student Mind’s University Mental Health Charter, the Office for Students’ Challenge funding, Student Mental Health Research Network (SMARTEN) research seed funding and What Works Network partner Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO). 

Recommendations and insight

  • The evidence base is at an early stagethe review identifies what is known at the moment and, crucially, what we don’t know. There are significant gaps; for example we can’t yet do comparisons and say which is the better thing to do or with whom… yet
  • Use this study to start discussions within your organisation – finding people who have expertise in relevant research, or from practice, about how we understand the effectiveness of what’s being done.
  • Build appropriate evaluation in to all projects and share the results of that evaluation 
  • This review establishes the knowledge baseline at a time when a lot of activity is underway. A follow-up study in five years would show what progress there has been in the global knowledge base. 

Key findings 

  • Overall, 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 intervention for this population, 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 can usefully focus on effects over longer timescales and what works for whom, when, how, and for how much. This includes being clearer on student group and selection for intervention. Consider testing 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. These may be initial findings – meaning that we have low confidence in them, and we require additional information to inform decisions. Some of these areas include:
    • promoting positive mental health
    • wider determinants of mental health, for example living and social environment; finance and debt; curriculum design; sense of belonging; and loneliness
    • students attending Further Education colleges in the UK
    • early intervention and specific student groups/courses
    • joining up between Further and Higher Education, and other services.
    • suicide prevention.


Read the Student Mental Health full report and briefing

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Oct 10, 2019 | By Nancy Hey
What’s being done to improve student mental health and wellbeing?
Centre Blog
May 30, 2018 | By Nancy Hey
Higher education: improving wellbeing and mental health
Centre Blog
Nov 21, 2017 | By Tricia
New evidence review: adult learning and wellbeing
Guest Blog
Jul 30, 2018 | By Centre
Academic perspective: Research gaps in student mental health
Centre Blog

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Read the Student Mental Health full report and briefing

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