Reducing student mental ill-health
While today's students may be physically more health conscious, there are concerns about rising levels of mental ill health. So, we have begun to build on our research into reducing the risks of mental ill health more generally, published in Perspectives in Public Health in May 2019.
We began by asking three fundamental questions i.e.
- When do students first start to experience mental health problems?
- Which students are most at risk?
- What has changed that might explain the reported increase in student mental health problems?
The answers to these three questions has provided fresh insights, with the potential to reduce the risk of reported mental health problems. In particular:
- There's increasing evidence that the vast majority of students who report mental health problems at university first experienced symptoms at school (81.6% in the largest ever student mental health survey in the UK) - suggesting that waiting until students arrive at university to tackle the problem is too little, too late.
- Students from 'widening participation' backgrounds aren't necessarily at greater risk of mental health problems but female students and LGBTQ+ students are i.e. gender and sexual orientation are greater risk factors than lower socio-economic status.
- Four pre-university factors are combining to make the transition to university more difficult than for previous generations of students and to predispose students to report mental health problems i.e. the growth of spoon-feeding at school; the rise of 'helicopter parenting'; the impact of social media (particularly for some female students); and the medicalisation of normal feelings and emotions (which are now increasingly perceived as symptoms of 'mental distress').
Some of our initial findings have been shared through blogs published by the Royal Society for Public Health, SMaRteN (the higher education network for research into student mental health) and SAGE Perspectives, as well as being published in Perspectives in Public Health.
We have begun to explore this hypothesis further through research in partnership with King's College London, Ulster University and Greenwich University. This started with pilot research with a sample of first year students and we published the findings in spring 2022, in our report The Student Mental Health Crisis, a fresh perspective.
Health at Work
After extensive research we published an Employers Guide which has been well received among a sample of employers. Feedback received so far has included:
‘This document looks fantastic! The contents are comprehensive and the headings for each section are really succinct and strong’ (Director, international advertising agency)
‘This is a brilliant document. Content wise it’s really good!’ (HR Officer for an infrastructure development company)
‘Very clear and easy to read and covered all the necessary points’ (Employment law adviser)
‘I thought the guide was really useful, and I'm definitely going to use this to benchmark what my organization has to offer’ (HR Adviser, beauty company)
Since 2020, Covid-19 has significantly affected health at work. We therefore researched health at work from a longer term perspective, looking at what was likely to be needed once the UK emerged from the current pandemic, to a country where Covid-19 would still be present but in a situation where a combination of mass vaccination and improved treatments mean a return to nearer normal working. For example, Covid-19 has significantly accelerated the trend to remote working and current indications are that remote working will continue post-Covid (perhaps as part of a hybrid or blended approach, which combines work at home and work in the office). If so, we need to consider both the longer term physical and mental health implications and what employers can do to ensure health at work, wherever that work may be taking place.
Tackling childhood obesity
We have identified and fed back to UK audiences, initiatives which have successfully reduced levels of childhood obesity in parts of Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Scotland and The Netherlands – as well as identifying that the mass production of healthier food is feasible, affordable and likely to be in the best long-term commercial interest of the UK food industry i.e. a potential Win-Win for both business and public health.
For example, some of our evidence on tackling childhood obesity was quoted by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee in its 2018 report and we provided further evidence to the Committee in 2019; we were invited to speak about tackling childhood obesity at Food Matters Live (a major food industry event) in November 2018 and November 2019; and were invited to take part in the first Food Matters Live podcast, in 2019, plus a follow up podcast in 2020; as well as to chair a session at Food Matters Live in 2020.
As a member of the Obesity Health Alliance we continue to support initiatives to move tackling obesity up the government agenda.
In 2018 our Age Watch project provided evidence to the House of Lords Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision.
Changes in lifestyles and pensions mean future generations could face many years of retirement in poor physical and financial health. Fortunately, many of the things we can do to slow the process of ageing and increase our prospects of living a longer, healthier life have now been researched and we share these findings on www.agewatch.org.uk under eight main headings:
- Living Longer
- Age and Gender
- Tackling Obesity
Health Behaviour Change
Our research here, published in 2018, focused on student health behaviour change, in partnership with King’s College London and Goldsmith’s University of London.
Previous studies had reported a range of unhealthy behaviour among university students freed from the constraints of family and school. However, our study suggested a different picture, with Generation Z more health conscious than its predecessors. 84% of students reported they had made changes to try to become healthier while at university. Reported levels of smoking and alcohol consumption were significantly lower than in previous studies, while a majority of respondents reported seeking to eat healthier food and exercise more while at university.
We compared our findings with the latest data on 18 – 24 year olds from the Office for National Statistics and NHS Digital and with media reports – and they were all pointing in the same direction. This suggests that universities have a significant opportunity to become Healthy Universities, in partnership with a more health conscious cohort of students.