Thriving Learners

Thriving Learners is one of the largest and most significant studies of student mental health that has ever taken place in the UK. In our first year of the project, over 15,000 university students across Scotland participated to share their experiences of mental health and wellbeing – good and bad – at a time when they have also had to deal with the stresses of COVID-19.

We partnered with Universities Scotland who linked us with every Scottish university to carry out the research. The project was made possible thanks to funding from The Robertson Trust.

The findings of the first year of the study, which focuses on universities, illustrate the challenges and inequalities faced by students across Scotland, and our recommendations for improvement.

For an overview, read our Executive Summary (PDF).

The report


  • Prof Pamela Gillies (Universities Scotland/Glasgow Caledonian University)
  • John de Pury (Universities UK)
  • Olivia Ford (Student at University of Strathclyde)
  • Luke Humberstone (UWS Union)

Findings & Recommendations

Please read our Executive Summary for a more comprehensive overview of findings.  The study found that:

  • Nearly three quarters of respondents reported low wellbeing (74%)
  • More than one third (36%) of respondents reported either moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression
  • Almost half of respondents (45%) reported experiencing a serious psychological issue that they felt needed professional help
  • More than half of respondents (57%) reported concealing a mental health problem for fear of stigmatisation
  • In the past 12 months, over a fifth of respondents (22%) worried about running out of food
  • In the past 12 months, almost one quarter (24%) ate less due to lack of resources or money

To read the full list of recommendations, see page 144 of the report. Recommendations include:

  • Increased focus on and funding for wellbeing supports. The Scottish Government should increase funding that should not be ring-fenced for mental health counselling only, but include the ability to increase capacity and interventions for wider wellbeing support.  Additionally, there needs to be: 
    • Consistency of language used across all universities to describe different forms of support and help students and staff understand and navigate wider student support systems
    • Simplified pathways to support for students and a campaign to raise awareness of what’s available, how to access, and the benefits
    • Innovative solutions to increase staff skills knowledge and confidence to cope with student wellbeing needs
  • Universities should incorporate student wellbeing as a measure of success as part of their enhancement model
  • Universities should undertake further research and consultation to gain a fuller understanding of the impact of trauma (e.g. ACES, bullying, food insecurity) on student mental health and wellbeing, and implement a trauma-informed approach to support across the whole university sector
  • Further discussion among decision-makers at Scottish Government, universities, and poverty charities on how to tackle student poverty and food insecurity
  • The NHS and University sector to agree on the parameters of duty of care of universities.  This should include a clear referral path for students who need more intensive mental health support than what can be provided by a university. This should be implemented across all institutions and NHS boards in Scotland

What’s Next?

We are encouraged at the positive response to the first-year findings of Thriving Learners. The evidence and recommendations from the study provide a clear path forward. Universities across Scotland and Universities Scotland have expressed a commitment to respond in a meaningful way, and continue to enhance understanding of student mental health and wellbeing and support available to enable every student to thrive.

Next year we will carry out the Thriving Learners study across Scottish colleges and further education institutions. We will partner with Colleges Scotland on this work.

We aim to repeat the Thriving Learners research in coming years to understand the impact of changes and to help inform and review progress.