Nearly three quarters of university students surveyed in Scotland have low wellbeing

  • Mental Health Foundation publishes largest ever study of student mental health and wellbeing in Scotland and calls for sector-wide change to support offered at universities 

  • More than 15,000 university students in Scotland participated in the study 

Download the Thriving Learners:  Initial Findings from Scottish HEIs 2021 REPORT

The largest study into the mental health and wellbeing of students in Scotland has revealed nearly three quarters (74%) of university students surveyed reported having low wellbeing, according to the research published by Mental Health Foundation today. 

The Thriving Learners study also found that more than one-third of university students surveyed (36%) reported moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression. Furthermore, nearly half of respondents (45%) reported that they had experienced a serious psychological issue that they felt needed professional help. 

These findings and others shared within the 162-page report have prompted a series of recommendations including calls for student wellbeing to become a measure of success for all universities in Scotland; increased Scottish Government funding for focused wellbeing support; and all universities to undertake further research and training to better understand the impact of trauma on student mental health and wellbeing.  

Over 15,000 students from all 19 universities in Scotland participated in the Thriving Learners study. Surveys and qualitative research were undertaken between January and April 2021, during the second national COVID-19 lockdown, to better understand the current state of student mental health, what support is available, what works, and what is still needed. 

Julie Cameron, Associate Director of Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, said: “The number of students experiencing low wellbeing or symptoms of poor mental health is alarming. We all feel low at times, but it is vital that the right supports are in place to prevent mental health problems from developing or escalating.  We know that universities all over Scotland care about the well-being of their students. Currently, the path to mental health and wellbeing support for students can be confusing and often the proposed solution is mental health counselling, for which there may be a lengthy wait.  We need sector-wide change, and we are pleased that universities across Scotland are open to our recommendations for continued improvement including incorporating student wellbeing within their measures of success. We’d like to see a broader wellbeing support model that includes a variety of interventions and services available at every university to empower students with the skills and knowledge to live a healthy and happy life, and feel reassured that more intensive support is available when it’s needed.”  

A move to a sector-wide support model focused on wellbeing would mean that no matter which university they attended, a student would have access to a range of supports. More than half of university students (57%) reported concealing a mental health problem for fear of stigmatisation. The charity hopes that changing the culture of mental health support at university to a broader wellbeing approach for all would empower people to be more open, seek and find the right help at an earlier stage, and prevent mental health problems from developing or worsening.  

Julie added: “We need to normalise conversations about wellbeing and mental health so that students are comfortable reaching out for help but also that both students and staff understand support doesn’t necessarily mean mental health counselling. Our study also revealed students’ positive coping mechanisms such as being in green spaces, doing exercise, and connecting with family and friends. So, in many cases, a different kind of help, such as an introduction to an extracurricular group with their peers, maybe a better option than a formal mental health appointment.” 

While the study was undertaken during the pandemic which undoubtedly added additional pressures to students, Mental Health Foundation urges caution in attributing too much reasoning for the study results to the impact of COVID19, lockdowns and restrictions. It is clear that existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic so the 22 per cent of students who were worried about running out of food and the 24 per cent who ate less due to lack of money, were likely to have already been struggling financially. To begin to address this the charity is calling for an urgent roundtable discussion about widening access and tackling student poverty and food insecurity, both among the root causes of poor mental health, in a bid to find and implement solutions supported by decision-makers at the Scottish Government, the university sector, and poverty organisations. 

Pamela Gillies, Principal of Glasgow Caledonian University and Lead Member for Mental Health at Universities Scotland: “I want to thank every student who took the time to be part of the biggest survey of this kind in Scotland. Working with students and others is the key to understanding and enhancing the well-being support universities can offer. The data achieves most where it catalyses action. As universities, we are determined that it will. Mental health is a strategic commitment of every institution in Scotland and a personal priority of every Principal. We will act, individually and collectively, on the findings and recommendations. Having had the benefit of being close to the research throughout, I can say that we’ve wasted no time and we are already acting on the findings. We owe that to every student in our institutions.” 

The project is led by Mental Health Foundation in partnership with Universities Scotland and funded by The Robertson Trust. The publication today collates the data from year one of the study focused on universities. In 2022, the study will concentrate on colleges and further education institutions.  

Donna Marie Steel, Widening Access Co-ordinator at The Robertson Trust, said: “The Trust was first approached by the Mental Health Foundation in 2019 under our previous strategy with a proposal to support their Thriving Learners study.  Through our own in-house Scholarship project, Journey to Success, we know that when students face barriers to engaging in Higher Education, this can affect their emotional wellbeing which is highlighted in the findings from the Thriving Learners study. The study is a much-needed resource for the sector, and we are keen to follow the progress of the Mental Health Foundations recommendations. We look forward to supporting the next phase of their research.” 


Notes to Editors 

To arrange an interview with one of the experts working on our study of how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health, or for further information, please contact: Claire Fleming [email protected]  07511 076 870   

Recommendations from Thriving Learners  

  1. Increased focus on and funding for wellbeing supports. Specifically for Student Mental Health Agreements to include a dedicated section and funding for wellbeing supports. The Scottish Government should increase funding for the HEI sector, but this should not be ring-fenced for counselling only but include the ability to increase capacity and interventions for wider wellbeing support. Additional recommendations to strengthen the wellbeing system within Higher Education Institutions include:
    • Need for consistency of language across the sector to describe different forms of support – to help students and staff understand and navigate wider student support systems. 
    • Innovative solutions to increase staff skills knowledge and confidence to cope with student wellbeing needs 
    • Individual institutions simplifying existing pathways to wellbeing support and broader supports they offer from the perspective of the student 
    • A campaign to raise the profile of wellbeing supports – beyond counselling – and the benefits they can bring
  2. Higher Education Institutions should incorporate student wellbeing as a measure of success as part of their enhancement model. Individual institutions are likely to require guidance on this from the sector as a whole. 
  3. The NHS and HEI sectors should undertake a process to agree on the parameters on the duty of care of universities. This should be supported by agreement on a streamlined referral pathway for students who need more intensive support than can be provided within the university setting. Once agreed, these pathways should be implemented across the sector. This should be done with urgency as some students are currently being failed by both systems. 
  4. Universities should undertake consultation and/or research to understand the nature of mental health stigma among students. This should help inform future activity to challenge stigma including enabling staff to address stigma. 
  5. Universities should undertake consultation and/or research to gain a fuller understanding of the impact of trauma on student mental health and wellbeing and the wider student experience. This should include but not be limited to the areas of exploration within this study regarding adverse childhood experiences (ACES), bullying and food insecurity. This should help inform future activity to implement a trauma-informed approach across the university sector
  6. Higher Education Institutions should implement a whole system approach to become fully trauma-informed. This is likely to require guidance from the sector and informed stakeholders including to support trauma-informed academic design and content
  7. A roundtable discussion between key stakeholders on how to reduce student poverty and the supports required, particularly in light of the widening access agenda. This should include a discussion on food insecurity. This would enable further exploration of the findings from this study alongside wider evidence. This should include HEI sector representatives, Scottish Government and poverty charities

About the survey

The Thriving Learners survey was live from 13 January 2021 – 2 April 2021 and had a total sample size of 15,128 university students in Scotland. This sample represents 5.9% of the Scottish university population. The only eligibility criteria for the participants was that they had to be current students attending a Scottish university. The responses were gathered using a self-selecting sampling approach that was facilitated by universities promoting the survey to their students. The study received a favourable ethical opinion from the University of Strathclyde Ethics Committee prior to launch.  

About The Mental Health Foundation: Our vision is of good mental health for all. The Mental Health Foundation works to prevent mental health problems. We will drive change towards a mentally healthy society for all, and support communities, families and individuals to lead mentally healthy lives with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. The Foundation is the home of Mental Health Awareness Week.