A team lead by King’s College London has been awarded £1.1 million to create the first student mental health research network in the UK.
“The point of the network is to stimulate more research in the area, so that the decision making in higher education can be based on evidence,” said Nicola Byrom, a lecturer in psychology at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, who is leading the network.
Reports of growing numbers of students accessing institutional counselling services and an increase in student suicides has prompted much discussion about how to tackle the issue of student mental health.
“Despite an increasing concern about mental health in universities, the research base in the UK has been scarce,” said Dr Byrom.
The research network, which is one of eight funded by the UK Research and Innovation to look into mental health across society, has funding for four years. Its work will include setting up a cohort study to specifically track student mental health, running conferences and events, and funding smaller research projects intended to grow into larger ones.
Dr Byrom said King’s and its partners, which include the National Centre for Social Research and the University of Oxford, will put “students at the centre of the research”, including through a student-led research team.
The findings from the network will then feed into the UK’s University Mental Health Charter, announced in June by universities minister Sam Gyimah.
The charter – being produced by the charity Student Minds with the support of the UPP Foundation, the Office for Students, the National Union of Students and Universities UK – is intended to act in a similar way to Athena SWAN, which recognises universities’ work towards gender equality. It is hoped that it will incentivise institutions to implement good practice when it comes to student well-being.
“One of the struggles with the lack of the research is identifying what that good practice in universities looks like,” said Dr Byrom. “With one in four students being seen or waiting to be seen by counselling services, we have to stop and ask why so many need that. What can be done earlier on so they don't get into that position in the first place?”
The announcement came as Universities UK issued guidance about preventing suicides at universities, including a recommendation that universities train all student-facing staff “in suicide awareness, how to have conversations and how to intervene”.
Universities UK has itself published a mental health framework – in 2017 – but Dr Byrom points out that the problem is that “as nice as it is, a framework doesn’t have any carrots or sticks to encourage institutions to actually implement it. The point of the charter is to create impetus to implement good practice.”