SMARtEN: Student Mental Health Research Network

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

Our vision is to change the Higher Education experience for all students and realise the ambition of an education system that supports students to thrive. Our network will build a comprehensive understanding of student mental health, including what good mental health means to students and the risk and protective factors that can be targeted to improve all students' mental health.

There has been great political, public and professional concern about students' mental health. The mental wellbeing reported by university students is among the lowest across the population. The sector has seen a dramatic rise in help-seeking with some institutions reporting that 1 in 4 of their students are either being seen by the university counselling service or are waiting to be seen. In the five years from 2010, there was a 210% increase in students with experience of mental health problems dropping out of university, incurring tuition fee debt and yet unable to yield a 'graduate wage premium.' While there is an obvious loss of return on public investment when students drop out of university, there are also expansive opportunities for a Higher Education system to support young adults to thrive in the present and future.

There is no clear narrative about the trends in student mental health or how best to respond. As such, developing effective solutions and allocating resources for a coherent institutional response is difficult and the potential for unintended consequences increases. The past 15 years have seen a rise in ad hoc arrangements of non-specialist, generic psycho-emotional interventions at all levels of the education system, administered and promoted by a flourishing commercial market. Extensive discussion with stakeholders, including lecturers, heads of teaching departments and heads of university counselling and support services, shows ambivalence and disagreement about what is happening and how best to respond.

Our cross-disciplinary team is committed to research and open-minded debate that looks at the balance between risk and benefit, addresses the contested and complicated questions and does not assume that any intervention must be a "good thing" in and of itself. The starting point for our network is that there is no single answer to understanding the challenges for student mental health, no single solution and no single discipline that can address all of the challenges. Our team brings together researchers with expertise in student wellbeing, psychology, epidemiology, social and economic research, anthropology, ethnography, informatics, social media, big data, arts, culture, education, behavioural science and mental health. As the network develops we will engage still more diverse experience and expertise.

The focus of the network will be to understand student mental health and mental health problems. We will address three questions;
(1) What is distinctive about the mental health experiences of students?
(2) What factors influence student mental health? and
(3) What can non-clinical universal approaches to student mental health achieve?

Engagement with students and key stakeholders (student support services, educators and clinicians) will maximise the benefits and impact of research and encourage knowledge exchange. Student engagement will be central to the network's core activities and include the development of a Student Research Team, a Priority Setting Partnership to establish students' priority research questions, two student-led mental health conferences and strong engagement across the other network activities.

Network activities will focus on four 'plus' funding rounds with each round including workshops and activities to support knowledge exchange, encourage collaboration, facilitate user engagement, and support creative applications from Early Career Researchers.

Planned Impact

We are working towards a vision of a Higher Education experience that supports all students to thrive. Students are our primary beneficiary. The network and associated research will have direct impact for students, as well as indirect impact via benefits for stakeholders including educators and student services (e.g., university counselling services, wellbeing and disability advisors).


Students
This application has been inspired and supported by Student Minds. Students have been engaged in the development of this application, to gather ideas and suggestions and gain feedback on an early draft of the proposal.

The network's activities and 'plus' funded research will have indirect impact for students, by supporting better understanding of student mental health and facilitating further research to improve student mental health. It is important that interventions are based on a strong understanding; without this, developing effective solutions will be difficult and the possibilities of iatrogenic or unintended consequences will increase. All interventions will have unintended consequences or side effects - that in itself should not be a barrier. However, we are committed to promoting research that allows us to look at the balance between risk and benefit, and never assume that any intervention must be a "good thing" in and of itself.

There will be immediate and direct impact for students involved in the Student Research Team. We will work with a diverse group of students to provide training and experience, supporting the students to develop their own skills as they contribute to and inform the network's research. The network's activities will have direct impact for a wider group of up to 400 students, engaged through the two student-led student mental health conferences. These conferences will offer students the opportunity to develop their own understanding of student mental health, to engage with researchers and contribute to research decisions, participate in workshops and develop their own research skills.

Network activity will be shared through blogs and podcasts on the network website and social media in an accessible format to encourage much wider student engagement, building an interest in and understanding of issues around student mental health. Our ambition here is to foster a strong sense of student empowerment around mental health.


Educators
The Universities UK #StepChange framework for mental health proposes a "whole university approach," recognising the that mental wellbeing of academics working in Higher Education cannot be separated from that of the students they teach. Consultation with academics highlights that the mental health of students is a serious cause for stress and concern, with academics feeling frustrated by their, and their institutions, inability to respond effectively. The network will have a specific focus on education, with the aim of inspiring and enabling further research to study how pedagogy, course and assessment design can be adapted to enhance student mental wellbeing. Providing immediate direct impact, the network will collate resources to support academics to start to consider student mental health when designing curricula and assessment.


Student support teams
Consultation with student services leaders and university counsellors has identified ambivalence and disagreement about how to respond to the crisis in student mental health. Over recent years we have seen a rise in an ad hoc range of non-specialist, generic psycho-emotional interventions. The network will support a more strategic approach to student mental health.

Higher Education Policy
The network will contribute to and engage with ongoing work coordinated by Student Minds and Universities UK to explore policy strategy to improve outcomes around mental health and wellbeing in higher education.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description We have reviewed the academic and grey literature relating to measurements of wellbeing in university students. We found that 28 different validated indicators have been used to measure well-being in UK university students. While many of these have been explicitly designed to assess wellbeing, studies are also routinely using "proxy" indicators - that is, they are using measures of something else, usually mental health symptoms, as a way to approximate an indication of student wellbeing. Our work here has identified substantive inconsistencies in how university student wellbeing is defined and measured.
Exploitation Route In response to this review, we are in the process of developing guidance to support a more consistent approach to measuring wellbeing for university students.
Sectors Education,Healthcare

URL https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09638237.2021.1875419
 
Description A multi-perspective analysis of university students' personal mental health and wellbeing capital and its effect on their life outcomes
Amount £271,976 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/T002255/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2020 
End 12/2021
 
Description Education for Mental Health: enhancing student mental health through curriculum and pedagogy
Amount £749,946 (GBP)
Funding ID MH04 
Organisation Office for Students 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 12/2021
 
Title Ethnographic Case studies 
Description Armstrong worked with the SMaRteN student research team to develop four ethnographic case studies of student mental health to help us understand whether students are re-labelling everyday emotional distress as a mental health difficulty. The final output will be a collection of interviews, which will be published by the network in early 2020. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact To be published in 2020 - a qualitative research tool that will enable practitioners and researchers to consider the language used by students to express Mental Health and well-being. 
 
Title Review of Population surveys 
Description McManus & Sampson completed a preliminary review to identify surveys with data relevant for understanding student mental health. This was shared on the network website, to support and encourage researchers within and beyond the network to work with existing data sets. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Researchers within and beyond the network are able to work more comprehensively with existing population data sets on Student Mental health. The resource was a support to applicants to our first funding call; What is Distinctive about Student Mental Health? 
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/resources.html
 
Title Scoping review of Mental Health and Well-being measures 
Description Dodd worked with our student research team and other stakeholders to review mental health measures and co-develop a basic measurement toolkit. A series of online consultations was undertaken, in which over 100 stakeholders participated. The final toolkit will be published in 2020. The aims of the SMaRteN measurement project are to: • Find out what measures already exist, and their strengths/weaknesses • Consult stakeholders (e.g., academics, clinicians, student services, University management, researchers and students) to identify what we should be finding measures for in order to comprehensively capture student mental health and wellbeing • Consult stakeholders to begin to develop consensus for preference for measures To address these aims, the key questions being addressed are: • How are student mental health and well-being being conceptualised and measured? • What information is available about the measures being used? • What are the measurement priorities of key stakeholders i.e., what do they think are the best indicators of student mental health and well-being, what data do they want? Scoping review of measures Our student-led research team have undertaken extensive literature searches of both academic journals and reports published by relevant organisations. These focused on how well-being and stress are being defined and measured. After extensive screening, reports/articles were included if they included a measure of well-being or stress, and met further pre-defined criteria (Higher Education students, UK context). From the articles included, Alyson has compiled a list of theoretical frameworks and measures used. Online consultation In Round One, we asked students and people working in Higher Education to suggest up to ten constructs they believed should be included when measuring student mental health and/or well-being. Some of these were things that might be associated with student mental health and/or well-being (determinants of mental health and well-being). Others were more direct outcome measures. Together these are indicators of mental health and well-being. From 119 responses, we grouped indicators into themes to compile a long-list of 65 potential outcomes. In Round Two, we asked stakeholders to rate the importance of each indicator on this long-list as a measure of student mental health and/or well-being. We had 99 stakeholders take part. Where >70% stakeholders rated an indicator as important, we included it in the final round. From these 37 potential outcomes, we asked stakeholders to choose their five priority 'mental health' outcomes and 'well-being' outcomes. This round is still open (45 completed responses so far). When completed, we will have a shorter list of recommended outcomes for measuring student mental health and well-being that have been identified and rated important by stakeholders. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Review not yet published - we anticipate it will be available in Spring 2020. 
 
Title Impact of COVID 19 on Doctoral and Early Career Researchers 
Description SMaRteN, in partnership with Vitae, conducated research into the impact of COVID-19 on the working lives of doctoral researchers and research staff. Covid-19 and the associated lock down has caused substantive disruption to the study and work of doctoral students and researchers in universities. The response to the pandemic has varied across universities and research funders. SMaRteN and Vitae aim to develop a national picture for how doctoral researchers and research staff have been affected by the pandemic. The survey includes questions relating to the impact of COVID-19 on research work, mental wellbeing, social connection. We further address the impact of COVID-19 on changes to employment outside of academia, living arrangements and caring arrangements and the consequent effect of these changes on research work. The survey considers the support provided by supervisors / line managers and by universities. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This data has been used by numerous universities to consider how they support PhD students through the pandemic. The data has been viewed over 1000 times in the first 6 months online and downloaded by 300 users. 
URL https://figshare.com/articles/dataset/Impact_of_COVID_19_on_Doctoral_and_Early_Career_Researchers/12...
 
Description AGCAS Heads of Career Service Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I presented at the AGCAS conference, reaching an engaged audience of heads of career services. We had a lively Q&A talking about current concerns for student mental health and areas where careers services could focus to maximise the positive impacts for student mental health.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description All in the Mind 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact What's happened to our mental health in 2020; tools to get through the winter
All in the Mind

More than two-thirds of adults in the UK have reported feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect Covid-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting well-being are worry about the future, feeling stressed or anxious and feeling bored. So what does the data say about what has really happened to the nation's mental health during the pandemic? Claudia Hammond hears about the short and potential long-term impacts, possible ways to address the effects, and examines the psychological tools to get through an uncertain winter from so called Awe-Walks to the technique of Decentering.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000p10y
 
Description Association of University Directors of Estates Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented at the AUDE conference, in a session around student mental health. Facilitated a lively Q&A exploring how estates directors can adapt policy and practice at their university to improve student mental health. This presentation was given in conjunction with two students from the SMaRteN student network, ensuring that the student voice was heard in the discussion and shaped thoughts around future estates strategy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Collecting longitudinal data about student mental health 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact SMaRteN ran a series of focused workshops, bringing together researchers interested in collecting longitudinal data around student mental health. This bought together researchers from across approximately 15 universities to explore how data could be shared in collaboration to allow data around student mental health to be shared across institutions. On the basis of these workshops, we completed a mapping exercise to identify commonalities and differences around measurement approach to develop recommendations for ways to bring alignment in approach. The activity from workshops has been carried forward with SMaRteN plus funding, being led by a collaboration at Sheffield university.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/longitudinal-studies.html
 
Description Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In December 2019 we held our inaugural conference at the University of Cambridge to promote conversation around robust Student Mental Health research and to champion our principles of collaboration between researchers and practitioners and the value of involving students at the heart of research. The conference was co-designed with the Student Research team and featured sixty contributors over a series of twelve sessions and poster displays. 170 delegates attended, of which 70 were students. The remainder were a range of University professionals, both academic and Professional Services and representatives of funding bodies, Higher Education strategic bodies and charities. The event ignited lots of discussion, collaboration and interest in the upcoming funding call and Priority Setting Partnerships. In a feedback survey, 75% of delegates rated 'Strong agree' to a question about their overall experience of the conference, and 90% of delegates stated that the conference provided a good platform to network and collaborate with others. The co-production of the conference was applauded, as was the presence of many students; which is unique for an academic conference. Some feedback comments included; 'Can't believe this was a student-led conference- brilliant and well done to all who helped to organise!', 'Blown away by how great the conference was. My favourite conference of 2019, easily. Massive shout out to the work and effort of the student team who pulled it all together. They did a better job than many events professionals & conference organisers have done.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/conference.html
 
Description Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The conference took place virtually on 16th and 17th December 16th 2020. Over the course of the two days, we ran six live panel sessions that touched on the following topics: Trends and Risk Factors, What Interventions Work, Inclusion and Exclusion, Academic Culture, Future Priorities of Student Mental Health Research, and Mental Health Literacy across The Institution.

These themes were chosen in response to the large consultation we ran earlier that year; 'Student Mental Health: What are the Key Questions'.
The conference featured 34 panellists and included researchers, student services staff, community partners from organisations such as the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, Student Minds, Universities UK and the Black Dog Institute. Each panel included an early career researcher and a member of the SMaRteN Student Research Team. High profile speakers included Professor Emeritus Anthony Jorm, Professor Daniel Eisenberg, and Professor Randy Auberbach.

The format was highly interactive; It began with an introduction from a member of the Student Research team. Each panellist then spoke for just 2 - 3 minutes before the Chair invited questions from the audience. The chat box was flooded with reactions and exchanging of details. Each session was attended by 120 - 150 people and over a third of participants choose to stay behind after the sessions to network in breakout rooms. The recorded sessions are available to watch here https://www.smarten.org.uk/conference.html

Following the conference, we have seen increased membership in our early career researcher and postgraduate student mental health virtual discussion groups. We've received 18 preliminary applications so far for our fourth funding call, promoted heavily at the conference, and we saw 267 applications for the SMaRteN Student research team, an increase of more than 50% compared to the previous year's applications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/conference.html
 
Description King's Global Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This was an informal briefing on the state of student mental health for approximately 20 business leaders, supporters and charitable donor. There was a lively Q&A around the current priority issues for student mental health.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Mental health and Research Culture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I led a large webinar discussion around the intersection between mental health and research culture, with a specific focus on supporting PhD student mental health.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.uni-jena.de/forschung/exzellenzstrategie/jena+alliance+life+in+focus/mental+health+day+2...
 
Description Quote in the Guardian 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Impact of COVID on mental health discussed in newspaper article.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/20/school-closures-will-trigger-uk-child-mental-healt...
 
Description Recruitment of a Student Research team for the year 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact In December 2018 we recruited a Student Research team of 12 undergraduate and Postgraduate students from a range of UK Universities. The students co-produced the SMaRteN conference, and worked on research projects; Ethnographic case studies and a scoping review of Well-being measures. They proactively engaged their peers in the network's activity and events. Some members of the team belong to the steering group for our research prioritization exercise; Student Mental Health: What are the key questions?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Recruitment of a Student Research team for the year 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact In December 2019 we recruited a Student Research team of 12 undergraduate and Postgraduate students from a range of UK Universities. The students will collaborate with members of our leadership team to explore issues around the ethics and practicalities of using big data to measure Student Mental Health and will engage the student voice in our research prioritization exercise; Student Mental Health: What are the Key Questions?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Sandpit - What is Distinctive about Student Mental Health 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A sandpit event in March 2019 to scope questions, connect researchers, encourage collaboration and promote understanding of how to shape proposals to meet the aims of the fund.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/sandpit.html
 
Description Suggestions to Universities, Supervisors and Line Managers from Doctoral and Early Career Researchers 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK in March 2020, universities closed their doors with uncertainty over when they would reopen. In the early stages of lockdown, many doctoral and Early Career Researchers (collectively, ECRs) felt their institutions had forgotten them.

Vitae and the UKRI-funded Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) surveyed 5,900 ECRs across 128 UK universities at the end of April 2020, to establish the impact of lockdown on their work. While almost two thirds of respondents agreed that their supervisor/line manager had done all they could to support them, only 38% felt the same way about their institution. A quarter of respondents identified that their relationship with their university had worsened since the pandemic began. Right now, a key question is: what can universities do to support their ECRs?

Our survey asked respondents for suggestions of how their supervisors/line manager and institutions could help them to work effectively during lockdown. We have worked with a small team of ECRs to complete thematic analysis on a representative subset of over 1,000 suggestions. We have taken an inductive approach to analysis and have worked at a semantic level with the aim to create a rich description of the dataset. All suggestions were double coded, and the research team worked together to develop themes from codes identified.

In summarising our results , we presented a simple set of recommendations for steps institutions and supervisors/line manager to ensure they are providing comprehensive support for ECRs. This guidance was shared across universities and received positively by PhD advisory teams within universities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/suggestions-following-covid-research.html
 
Description UUK Webinar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Universities UK to talk about how universities needed to support their students through the COVID pandemic and lockdown. We were able to give a clear steer for policy makers and university leaders.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/events/Pages/Mental-health-and-Covid-19-WeAreTogether.aspx
 
Description VITAE Online conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Several hundred PhD students and professional services staff with an interest in supporting PhD students participated in a break out session at the Vitae conference. I led a discussion around supporting mental health for PhD students and particular concerns that have been raised through COVID.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.vitae.ac.uk/events/vitae-connections-week-2020
 
Description Webinar - Secondary data analysis 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A skills webinar was delivered in March 2019 to support thirty Early Career Researchers to engage with secondary data sets and support bid preparation. The webinar was published on the website. Over a third of the participants went on to join an online special interest groups for researchers interested in methods to measure student mental health. One attendee went on to receive a large ESCR grant and remarked how constructive the webinar had been to her application.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/webinar.html
 
Description Workshop - Arts meets Health 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact On 14th November 2019, Gordon-Nesbitt, Ayton and Litt ran a workshop to build understanding of the creative approach for health researchers and, drawing on the ESRC funded Creative and Credible project, discuss evaluation frameworks appropriate to of arts and health. The workshop was attended by 40 delegates; including Early Career researchers, Academics, arts practioners, Student Support professionals, researchers from the MARCH network and a range of organisations including London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The event prompted interest in our second funding call to develop further research into creative approaches as a means of improving student mental health, built on a common understanding and a shared evaluation framework. We are working with researchers who attended the workshop to put in place a special interest group to unify work happening in this field, and will collaborate with the MARCH network to group expertise and amplify the impact of this knowledge.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.smarten.org.uk/arts-meets-health.html
 
Description Workshop - Pedagogy 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In July 2020, Ecclestone ran a workshop to encourage scholarly engagement with questions about the contribution of curricula and syllabus content, teaching, academic support and assessment in supporting or hindering mental health. Twelve delegates from Professional Services and Academic departments from a range of UK institutions contributed to the day-long discussion, of which the end product was a report and a series of questions to form the basis at a pedagogy session, led by Ecclestone at SMaRteN's inaugural conference on 17th December 2019. The report was be tabled at the SMaRteN leadership team meeting on 27th January 2020, and further activity in line with this strand of work will be planned over the course of the year, including plans for a consultation session with students about the content of the report.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019