The University of Exeter is leading a project that aims to create the blueprint for improving the mental health and wellbeing of students while at university.

Nurture-U is a collaboration of six universities – also including Cardiff, Oxford, King’s College London, Newcastle, and Southampton – and early data from their national survey involving more than 6,000 students has found around 35 percent reported clinical levels of anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, more than 50 per cent reported high levels of loneliness and around a quarter say they don’t have a healthy work-life balance.

Professor Ed Watkins from the University of Exeter is Nurture-U Chief Investigator and said: “Most issues with mental health emerge somewhere between the ages of 12 to 24 and students are right in the middle of that range. Going to university is also a big transition for people and we know that a lot of students have elevated levels of anxiety and depression. We’re trying to bridge the gap between what students require to address these issues and what’s currently available to support them at university.”

Universities UK published Stepchange: mentally healthy universities in 2020, which is a framework for a ‘whole university approach’ where every aspect of the university works together to facilitate better wellbeing and mental health. Nurture-U aims to understand how to better implement this approach.

Professor Louise Lawrence from the University of Exeter said: “It means universities don’t just have a wellbeing service which sees students when they’re struggling, but we think about how we set up the culture, systems, processes, curriculum, and environment to promote wellbeing. This includes our ‘Compassionate Campus’, which aims to make campuses more engaging and supportive for students to create a sense of belonging.”

Dr Nicola Byrom from King’s College London said: “There is considerable interest across the sector in how universities can better support students. The governments’ Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce has been established in part to develop a ‘Student Commitment’ for more sensitive student-facing policies, procedures and communications in the sector. It is easy to agree that being more “compassionate” sounds like a good idea, however even compassion can come with unintended harms. Through an ethnographic study, led from King’s College London, we are exploring the barriers and enablers to the sector adopting a more compassionate approach.”

Nurture-U, which is jointly funded by the Medical Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council, and Economic and Social Research Council from the government department, UK Research and Innovation, launched in September 2021 and currently runs until August 2025. The research group runs student surveys twice a year.

The team is also looking at mental health literacy, including courses for students to teach them about mental health. Topics include how they can spot signs they or their peers might need help, where they can get that help, and ideas about healthy lifestyle strategies and coping skills.

Professor Ed Watkins from the University of Exeter said: “Between their academic work and paid work to make ends meet, some students don’t have much time for anything else. One of the things we emphasised in the mental health literacy course is a work-life balance and building in recharging activities and recreation. Students who worked through the programme did build up those activities and found their wellbeing improved. The ‘Compassionate Campus’ project is also looking at ways to connect people and tackle loneliness.”

Nurture-U uses a mix of quantitative data and interviews for its analysis and has an interdisciplinary approach, with the team including psychologists, psychiatrists, ethnographers, anthropologists, and academics in humanities.

Clinical trials are also running alongside the surveys at the Exeter Clinical Trials Unit. These will help create a general resilience workbook available to all students, and a prevention app for those who have high levels of worry. The study also includes a trial of internet-delivered cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for students with elevated symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. The worry app and internet CBT trials are now open for students across the UK.

The Nurture-U team will analyse the data to determine the percentage of students who would benefit from the different type of approaches, and to better recommend the right level of service to students depending on their needs. The team will continue the in-depth surveys with standardised measures and repeated measurements. For instance, some students will be completing the survey twice a year and in future academic years, so data is being tracked over a longer period.

By the end of the project, Nurture-U will be able to recommend best practice for improving student mental health across different stages and domains of the ‘whole university approach’.

Find out more about Nurture-U here.