Peer support for university mental health

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


Organisations including the Royal College of Psychiatrists (2011) and the Higher Education Policy Institute (2016) have raised concerns about the mental health of university students. The number of students reporting distress is rising (Neves & Hillman, 2017), as is demand for professional support services (Institute for Employment Studies, 2015). It is suspected that less than a third of students who report experiencing distress are receiving support (Wadman et al., 2019).

Policy makers recognise that expanding professional support is not a viable solution; it would perpetuate a deficit model and maintain the assumption that the solution to mental health problems rests within the voluntary scope of the individual. A settings-based approach, that considered mental health across the whole institution has been advocated (e.g., Universities UK, 2017 and Student Minds, 2018). An 'organic' settings-based model takes the assumption that while health problems predominantly seen to lie within the wider system, the solution lies in the multitude of day-to-day processes and practices that constitute the whole (Whitehead et al., 2001). This approach favours grassroots participation (Muntaner et al., 2000), where activity focuses on strengthening collective participation and action (Beattie, 1987).

Peer support can be conceptualised as an 'organic' approach. Bringing together students with similar experiences to share knowledge for mutual benefit, is expected to allow people to give and receive help (Mead, Hilton, & Curtis, 2001) and reduce loneliness (Solomon, 2004), building the form of social support that is protective against the development of depression (Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010). By supporting non-professionals to develop skills to foster better mental health, peer support builds community resilience.

While there has been extensive research into the efficacy of interventions focused on the individual student, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, there are substantive gaps in the data for more holistic approaches (What Works Wellbeing, forthcoming). Peer run programmes for depression have been shown to produce significant reductions in depressive symptoms and perform as well as professional-led interventions and significantly better than no-treatment conditions (Bryan & Arkowitz, 2015; Pfeiffer et al., 2011). This project will assess whether these findings replicate among university students. Working with our charity partner, Student Minds, the project will evaluate the efficacy of peer support groups for depressive symptoms, comparing outcomes for students who do and do not engage with groups. Outcomes will also be monitored for students who start groups but subsequently drop out. Qualitative research to build a deeper understanding of the impact of peer support as an 'organic' settings-based approach.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2471861 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/01/2021 03/03/2024 Julia Ann Haas