A multi-perspective analysis of university students' personal mental health and well-being capital and its effect on their life outcomes

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Higher Education


Earlier last year (April 2018), the UK Office for Students (OfS) noted that students from underrepresented groups such as black and minority ethnic (BME) students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to succeed at university. Coupled with this, research has shown that students from these groups are also more likely to have poorer mental health and wellbeing. However, there is substantial social and political pressure on universities to act to improve student mental health. For example, the Telegraph ran the headline "Do British universities have a suicide problem?"

Thus, in June 2018, the Hon. Sam Gyimah, the then UK universities minister, informed university vice-chancellors that student mental health and wellbeing has to be one of their top priorities. Universities are investing substantive sums in activities to tackle student mental health but doing so with no evidence base to guide strategic policy and practice. These activities may potentially be ineffective, financially wasteful, and possibly, counter-productive. Therefore, we need a better evidence base which this project intends to fulfil.

Currently, there is a lack of evidence and understanding about which groups of young people going to universities may have poorer life outcomes (such as education, employment, and mental health and well-being) as a result of their mental health and wellbeing during their adolescent years. These life outcomes and their mental health and wellbeing, however, are important for understanding the context of the complex social identities of the young people, such as the intersections between their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion and socio-economic status. Otherwise, these young people may feel misunderstood or judged. Most of the large body of quantitative research on life outcomes tend to focus on one social characteristic/identity of the student, such as the young person's gender or ethnicity or socio-economic status, but not the combination of all of these, i.e. the intersectionalities. Primarily, the reason for this has been the lack of sufficient data. This research draws on data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE), which tracked over 15,000 adolescents' education and health over 7 years between 2004-2010 (from when they were 13-19 years old), and the Next Steps Survey, which collected data from the same individuals in 2015 when they were 25 years and in the job market. This dataset also had an ethnic boost, which thus allows for the exploratory analysis of intersectionalities.

Currently, there are a number of interventions being implemented to improve the university environment. However, there is a lack of evidence on how the university environment (such as their its size, amount of academic support available, availability of sports activities, students' sense of belonging, etc.) can affect the young person'students' mental health and wellbeing life outcomes. This evidence can be determined through by using the LSYPE data supplemented and by university environment data supplemented from the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Thus this research uses an intersectional approach to investigate the extent to which the life outcomes of young persons who go to university are affected by their social inequality groupings and mental health and well-being during adolescence. Additionally, this research also aims to determine the characteristics of university environments that can improve the life outcomes of these young people depending on their social and mental health/wellbeing background.

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of this project are:
1. Students and young adults (the primary beneficiaries)
2.University groups and their employees (e.g. UUK, Russell Group)
3. Government policymakers: Parliamentary Commons Committees, Office for Students (OfS), Department for Education (DfE)
4.Mental health charities and other third sector organisations
5.Wider community (mainly potential university students and parents)

The project will provide insight into how young people's life outcomes (educational, employment, mental health and well-being) are dependent on their intersectionalities and how it is moderated by their university environment. By addressing how the characteristics of the university environment can improve the life outcomes for young people, universities can identify whether their environments may be detrimental to certain young persons and can work to put into place policies and practices that can reduce the disadvantages that may be faced by some groups of young persons. The research will facilitate more strategic commissioning of university-linked student health services linked to universities. The findings will provide richer information for young people and their parents as they seek and select appropriate universities. Indirectly, the findings will also benefit students, by providing university policymakers with better information to guide practice.

Improving the mental health and wellbeing of this age group, 18 - 24 years old, is of primary importance. Organisations with wellbeing expertise, e.g., the What Works Wellbeing centre, recognise that supporting good mental health and wellbeing for this age group is essential to establishing good patterns of behaviour support mental health and wellbeing through into later adulthood.

How will they benefit from this research?
1) Improved policy-making at the university level: Currently, universities tend to have a blanket policy on how they support their students. However, our research can better pinpoint which groups of young people may need the most support in terms of educational, employment and mental health and wellbeing outcomes. Therefore, universities that may be able to create policies or programmes that work specifically with these groups of young people.

2) Improved policymaking at the governmental level: National and international policymakers will be provided with evidence of relationships between the mental health and wellbeing of young people and their educational and employment outcomes. Parliamentary committees (such as the Education Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee) and the OfS will have the evidence to know which groups of young people are most likely to succeed in particular university environments depending on their mental health and wellbeing. This will enable parliamentary committees to recommend appropriate mental health support policies for different groups of students either during adolescence, at university or during employment.

3) Improved mental health charities support: With the provided evidence, professional bodies and mental health charities, such as StudentMinds and What Works Wellbeing can develop and revise targeted training and appropriate guidelines for students and academic staff on the prevention and management of mental health problems in young people throughout the UK, as well as providing appropriate information for their campaigns in order to lobby governmental groups.

4) Potential University Students and their Parents: These individuals can use the evidence to be informed in the short-term about the university environment that can enhance their life outcomes; whilst in the long-term, universities can be lobbied to provide policies and practices for enhancing life outcomes of those not optimally supported.


10 25 50
Description Mental Wellbeing and Anxiety for young people
1. Young people's anxiety appears to stem from examination stress and this is more likely for those who are intending to go to university than those who are not.
2. Young people's anxiety from examination stress appears to be more likely for those who eventually went to a more academically selective university than not.

Intersectional Effects of Mental Health and Wellbeing for young people
1. Mental wellbeing of young people who attended universities appear to be better than the mental well-being of those who did not attend university
2. Mental wellbeing for young people is worse off for those who are female or had adolescent distress or are from an LGBTQ+ background. The wellbeing of these people are not aggravated by their social identities but are layered i.e. a female LGBTQ+ person would have a higher likelihood of having worse mental health outcomes than a female heterosexual person but it is not because they are female and LGBTQ+ (i.e. two identities mixed together) but rather their two separate identities of being female or LGBTQ+ contribute different amounts to their mental wellbeing

University Environment
1. Preliminary findings suggest that the university environment do not adversely affect students' wellbeing and outcomes
Exploitation Route The findings can be used by both the healthcare, school and university sectors to understand the pressures that students undergo and provide appropriate support.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare

URL https://studentwelllives.com/
Description Consensus group for standardised procedures for data collection in university student psychological wellbeing and mental health cohorts
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
URL https://sites.google.com/york.ac.uk/student-research/partners?authuser=0
Description Student Mental Health and NHS South East Collaborative
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description Student Well Lives Website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The website has had 121 visitors - this has sparked a conversation about our project.

The website was also used as a training purpose on how to write a research grant.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://studentwelllives.com/
Description University Students Mental Wellbeing - Festival of Social Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Around 10 persons attended synchronously and 17 persons asynchronously a session hosted on GatherTown which helped to make sense of how university environments can influence mental health and wellbeing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://studentwelllives.com/foss/
Description Using administrative data on universities for research purposes 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Around 25 persons attended the session on the use of administrative data - this sparked questions and discussion afterwards on how administrative data can be used for research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021