What works to tackle mental health inequalities in higher education?

In partnership with The Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO)


9th May 2022

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) launched a new report on ‘What works to tackle mental health inequalities in higher education’, with the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO).

For this work, we conducted a large-scale evidence review alongside a mixed-methods sector consultation, discussing themes related to disclosure, targeted support, and evaluation, with practitioners from across the FE and HE sectors.

Prevalence rates indicate that students from low income backgrounds, from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, mature students, LGBTQ+ students and care-experienced students are all at greater risk of suffering from poor mental health, and are also among the groups most likely to experience poorer outcomes throughout their HE journey.

Since 2010, there has been a significant rise in the number of students disclosing a mental health issue to their institution, but the report highlights that mental health concerns remain underreported, particularly among the most at-risk groups. Evidence suggests that BAME students, males, mature students, refugees and asylum seekers are among the least likely groups to report a mental health condition. Practitioners involved in the research suggested that issues including stigma, cultural barriers, and fear of losing future opportunities makes these groups less likely to disclose any mental health issues.

The report corroborates previous evidence demonstrating that psychological and mindfulness-based interventions are successful in tackling mental health inequalities within HE settings. However, these initiatives are easier to evaluate on a larger scale, which may be why the evidence base is stronger than for a lot of other mental health interventions. These approaches can also be more difficult for providers to implement, particularly small and specialist institutions and FE colleges, which have fewer resources to draw on than other larger institutions.

We also found that peer-led interventions are in some cases more effective than other more generic programmes of support. Some groups of at-risk young people, such as Black male students, find it easier to reach out to peers than to seek more formal support. Peer mentoring networks can encourage disclosure amongst those who are wary of the system or uncomfortable with being ‘singled out’ by targeted interventions.

Following the publication of our report, CfEY wants to see further research into how to break down barriers and identify practical actions to support students and those caring for them. We recommend more institutions consider implementing or strengthening peer-led mental health and well-being support, and this should be supported by more research into how to deliver these interventions safely and effectively. Additional enquiry into how to encourage disclosure of mental health issues and help-seeking behaviours, particularly amongst at-risk students, would also be beneficial.

Alix Robertson, Senior Associate at CfEY and author of the report, said: “Supporting practitioners to safeguard the mental health and well-being of young people is a priority for CfEY. Students today face a range of competing pressures that can take a toll on their mental health, and while the pandemic has created new challenges for everyone, the negative impact on young people in certain demographic groups 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 the right support to all students, including the most vulnerable and those least likely to ask for help.”

Read the summary report here.

Read the full report here.


In partnership with: