TASO has launched a new report, What works to tackle mental health inequalities in higher education (HE)?

Produced in collaboration with the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), the report includes an evidence review around how mental health may be driving or perpetuating equality gaps in HE outcomes and the effectiveness of interventions to combat these inequalities. Findings from the review are supported by a mixed-methods sector consultation, discussing themes related to targeted support and evaluation. As part of the consultation, roundtable discussions were structured around different provider types including FE colleges, Russell Group universities, Metropolitan universities, small and specialist providers, and third sector organisations.

The report reveals evidence suggesting that mental health issues may both cause and worsen inequalities in higher education and that the impact of COVID has increased levels of anxiety, stress and loneliness, risking further marginalising of students from underrepresented backgrounds. Evidence also points to students from these backgrounds being less likely to disclose their experience of poor mental health or seeking support, raising concerns that the extent of the problem could be staying largely hidden.

“The evidence suggests that the growth in student mental health issues could be much worse than we thought, and that these issues are potentially widening the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. At TASO, we recognise there are still gaps in the evidence base for what works to tackle this inequality. More effective evaluation is needed and a more evidence-based approach to planning interventions. We are lacking in evidence that demonstrates the long-term impact of student mental health support, particularly on HE-related outcomes, and want to support the sector in the evaluation of initiatives. What is clear though, is that mental health poses a big challenge for everyone who cares about equality within higher education, and the scale of this challenge may be larger than we had predicted.”

Sarah Chappell, Senior Research Officer and project lead at TASO

A concerning finding is that students from low income backgrounds, from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, mature students, LGBTQ+ students and care-experienced students are at greater risk of suffering from poor mental health, and are also among the groups most likely to experience poorer HE outcomes. The review of the evidence on student mental health interventions revealed that support appears to be focused on student mental health and well-being in general and there is a paucity of evidence regarding interventions targeted at these at-risk groups. Nonetheless, some studies show that existing mental health interventions can be tailored to address specific mental health concerns, including those related to race, gender and sexuality. HEPs also report implementing peer support initiatives for students who identify as LGBTQ+, young carers, care-experienced students and students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

“Students today face a range of competing pressures that can take their toll on mental health. The pandemic has created new challenges for everyone, but for young people in certain demographic groups the negative impact on well-being has been especially severe. While practitioners across FE and HE are working hard to support their students, this report highlights that more needs to be done to tackle stigma around mental health issues, ensure young people receive the support that is right for them, and embed joined up working across departments and services. The evidence and recommendations in this report are a stepping stone towards supporting the FE and HE sectors to identify challenges early and provide support to all students, including the most vulnerable and those least likely to ask for help.”

Alix Robertson, Senior Associate at The Centre for Education and Youth

As part of its research theme on mental health, TASO will be conducting further research into these issues, with a view to helping to inform policy and practice with a solid evidence base.

You can read the summary report here and the full report here.