Student mental health – are things better or worse in wider society?

One of the questions that increasingly surrounds surveys of students - on everything from sexual misconduct to freedom of speech - is whether things are any worse (or better, or different) for those of otherwise similar characteristics that don’t end up in higher education.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That matters partly because so many reports attribute their findings by implication to higher education environments or providers when there may be no real link, or where the causation might be in the opposite direction (see, for example, “woke” students).

So it’s fascinating that the Department for Education has published the results of a study looking at differences in mental health among students and non-students.

It’s not clear why the research was commissioned, when it was commissioned, or even who by – but occasionally we do get the results of government-commissioned research dribbling out at odd times without particular fanfare or comment.

But the results are significant.

To get results researchers ran some analysis on two large nationally representative cohort studies – the Longitudinal Studies of Young People In England (LSYPE). Both studies started when young people were 13/14 years of age – LSYPE1, known to participants as “8 Next Steps”, started in 2004 and LSYPE2, known to participants as Our Future, started in 2013.

First they looked at symptoms of common mental disorder in young people who attended higher education, compared with those who did not attend. In that 2013 LSYPE2 cohort, they found that young people who were in higher education had higher subsequent levels of common mental disorder than those who were not. And this wasn’t in their stressful final year – this was observed during the first year of higher education.

In the previous LSYPE1 cohort, they found no evidence of a difference in symptoms – but that was observed when the participants were 25 years of age in 2015, after they had or had not entered higher education between 18 and 20 years of age.

In other words, the findings suggest that higher education was associated with worse mental health – but not any lasting impacts.

Before you ask, they’ve controlled for sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, parents’ highest qualification and family composition, and they’ve also controlled for other predictors like experience of bullying, frequency of alcohol use, cannabis use, general quality of health, disability status and carer status. It’s still worse for those inside higher education compared to those not in it.

Now why might that be? The report runs us around the studies in this area, and reckons reasons could include financial stress, academic pressures (things like workload, exam stress, fear of failure) and changes to social relationships and living arrangements that may cause isolation, loneliness or lack of support – many of which are in the gift of both national and institutional policy makers to influence.

Fascinatingly, to try to see if there was some sort of causal link from mental health issues at an earlier age, researchers examined the history of common mental disorder symptoms from age 13 to 17, and found that young people who would later attend higher education had fewer symptoms of common mental disorder than those who would not at age 14/15.

More research is needed, but the report argues that the findings point to the importance of preventing and treating common mental disorders in the higher education population from the point of entry, and the importance of preventing and treating common mental disorders in higher education – encouraging students to be aware of and seek treatment from available support services.

Most importantly, it points to a need to better resource student mental health services within higher education providers – which apart from tiny slices of “competition” based investment via OfS, an initial budget for Student Space and a paltry £15m in the strategic priorities fund next year, is notably missing from any Westminster government strategy or announcement.

The report comes, by the way, alongside the results of an exploratory study with higher education providers and sector experts that gives an institutional perspective on student mental health and wellbeing, and covers stuff like approaches taken by providers to supporting students’ wellbeing and mental health, the range of services available to students, the data collected on the prevalence of mental health difficulties and levels of wellbeing and the gaps in evidence that are around. It’s ideal for someone new to the sector that’s trying to work out what universities do on mental health and how they do it.

The big issue buried in the doc surrounds “evidence gaps”, with a clear sense that not enough universities know enough about their own students’ mental health. There’s also major gaps in stuff like understanding how transition to university affects mental health through and the barriers that stop students from seeking help, as well as a “lack of understanding about the real effectiveness of wellbeing support”.

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