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Mental health and wellbeing in UK higher education research drivers

27 July 2023
Plants growing in soil

Cristina Higuera Martín, Education Developer in the Education Development Service outlines drivers shaping strategic approaches and evidence-based practices UK higher education to prevent or address mental wellbeing issues, and to promote a healthy and positive learning and teaching experience for all.

What is mental health and wellbeing?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development highlights that ‘we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. Both change throughout our lives, and like our bodies, our minds can become unwell’ (CIPD, 2023).

The World Health Organisation states that ‘Mental health is an integral component of health and wellbeing that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in’ (WHO, 2018).

While different perspectives and boundaries exist in wellbeing research across disciplines, psychological wellbeing can be defined as being characterised by ‘happy/content feelings, a sense of engaged equilibrium with one’s environment, and a sense of being at the driver’s seat in one’s life’ (Phimister, 2022).

Striking an optimal balance between practical & pedagogical considerations, and the wellbeing of staff and students in the UK higher education sector is therefore of crucial importance.

Drivers shaping strategic approaches and evidence-based practices in the UK higher education sector

There are a number of internal and external conditions that are shaping mental health and wellbeing decisions across the UK higher education sector:

  1. The cost of living is among these drivers, adding financial pressures to students and staff alike – food, accommodation, fees, transportation.
  2. Increased demand and waiting times for counselling services, both for NHS services and university services, is also a driver for the development of initiatives in support of individuals’ mental health and wellbeing.
  3. Individual differences are also shaping mental health & wellbeing research in the sector, with a view to more accurately target and better tailor mental health and wellbeing interventions.
  4. Initiations into UK higher education student societies continue to yield mixed health and wellbeing outcomes for students, from extremely positive to traumatisingly negative, leading to the deaths of students on multiple occasions.
  5. Our knowledge-based economy presents new challenges for staff and students in outcome driven environments where professional and academic performance are measured and linked to employability, salary and progression.
  6. Lived experiences and intersecting identities* yield complex scenarios associated with different impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of individuals. Research is currently focusing on how to overcome barriers to engagement and seeking help while in university. * Lived experiences and intersecting identities may include part-time, commuter, distance learning, mature, maternity, carer, marital status, nationality, fee status, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexuality.
  7. Master and doctoral supervision is also an area being examined, with supervisors asking for more adequate training and support, and PGT students-tutors facing dual demands as both student and staff member.
  8. Personal tutoring is another area being researched, with a particular emphasis on the impact this role can have on staff’s mental health and wellbeing.
  9. Previous trauma is another driver for mental health and wellbeing research in the UK HE sector, for instance in relation to students’ academic persistence and academic performance.
  10. The demands placed by specific disciplines upon today and tomorrow’s practitioners – for instance, health care professions and lecturing – are also shaping decisions about health and wellbeing in universities. Evidence shows (Advance HE, 2023) wellbeing measures in these professions are below general population norms.
  11. Transitions is an area also prioritised for research at present, with evidence pointing towards the need of a greater awareness of how to support students from moving to university, moving into studies, moving into assessment, moving between stages of study, moving between study and work placement, and moving out of study by nurturing social belonging and through the provision of infrastructures, scaffolding, and signposting.

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Which driver from the list is the most important?

Type one research priority in mental health and wellbeing research UK higher education.

Find out more

Advance HE (2023) Mental wellbeing in HE conference 2023: putting theory into practice – creating a whole university approach to student and staff wellbeing | Advance HE (​

Cardiff University (2020) Enabling Success: A Strategy for Creating a Mentally Healthy University

CIPD (2023)

Phimister, D. (2022) What is wellbeing?

United Nations (2023) The 17 Goals

WHO (2023) Mental Health