The project will work with students and university leaders to develop inclusive student wellbeing and mental health support.

£3.7 million for Exeter to develop student wellbeing approach for higher education sector

New research by the University of Exeter and funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will evaluate and establish the best model to support student wellbeing across the university sector.

Led by Professor Ed Watkins, at the University of Exeter, the project will seek to develop and evaluate an approach that encompasses an integrated model across whole universities. Against a backdrop of a rise in mental health conditions in young people, the project team will work with students and university leaders to develop inclusive student wellbeing and mental health support, which will go onto inform policy recommendations.

The research is supported by the Exeter Clinical Trials Unit, and involves collaboration with the universities of Oxford, Southampton, Cardiff and Newcastle, and King’s College London. It will examine a stepped care approach for students with a focus on how needs may vary across the diverse student body. Wide-scale wellbeing promotion for all will include initiatives to build compassionate campuses, digital self-monitoring for students, and state-of-the-art mental health literacy courses.

Clinical trials will evaluate digital self-help interventions for students with mild-to-moderate symptoms and develop ways to personalise treatment, and digital tools will be used to enhance professional support from existing wellbeing services for students with more serious symptoms. The team will also develop guidance, courses and tools to promote student wellbeing that can be easily be scaled across higher education.

Professor Ed Watkins, from the University of Exeter, said: “Addressing mental health and wellbeing in university students is a growing priority – rates of difficulties have been increasing, with this further exacerbated by the impact of the COVID pandemic, and beyond the capacity of existing services.

“Whilst most universities are adopting some version of a stepped care model combining health promotion, prevention, self-help and professional counselling and therapy services, this model has not been rigorously evaluated and we don’t know what aspects or combinations of the model work best for which students. This programme will provide a unique opportunity to rigorously evaluate this approach to develop an evidence-based, inclusive, enhanced approach to improve student well-being that can be applied across the HE sector.”

As part of the study Professor Louise Lawrence, from the department of Theology And Religion, Dr Felicity Thomas, from the University of Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health and Dr Nicola Byrom, from Kings College London, will lead a workstream to track  how university campuses can be made more compassionate environments.

Promoting compassion can help build connectedness and community and reduce and challenge bullying, discrimination, racism, sexism, ableism, sanism, and foster more respectful and inclusive interactions. It can also raise awareness of cultural difference, provide students and staff with more accurate knowledge of stigmatised conditions and prevent medicalising of normal emotions. This work has already started at the University of Exeter.

The study will test whether building compassion into university culture, organisation and curricula is feasible, and if it can improve student wellbeing, inclusivity and academic performance. Academics will be supported to integrate practical kindness into their teaching and assessment, with students interviewed to test the impact.

The funding is one of seven to be funded under UKRI’s £24million investment into adolescent mental health to enable young people to flourish. The projects have been funded through the Strategic Priorities Fund, a UKRI cross-council initiative led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The aim of the initiative is to support multi and inter-disciplinary research and innovation that will address an area of strategic importance aligned with government policy and research priorities.

Rebecca, 24, has experienced mental health problems as a young person and was on the Young People’s Reviewer Panel, which helped to shape the call. She said: “I was really excited to be a part of the decision-making. It meant that I could actually see what people were trying to propose to help and as someone with lived experience of mental health, could suggest what I thought would and wouldn’t work.”

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UKRI, said: “It is abundantly clear that more work is urgently needed to find effective ways to support the mental health of young people at a crucial stage in their lives.

“This portfolio of interdisciplinary projects will build the evidence and understanding that we need to combat debilitating mental illness in young people and allow them to fulfil their potential.” 

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “As we look to build back better from the pandemic, the health and happiness of children and young people across the UK is an absolute priority.

“We are committed to investing in the mental health of adolescents, leveraging the world-class capabilities of UK researchers to deliver the very best outcomes for our young people.”

To further improve mental health and wellbeing provision for young people, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan is due to co-chair a new roundtable today (Monday 28 June) on suicide prevention in higher education with Universities UK (UUK).

Date: 28 June 2021