There needs to be a clearer differentiation between student wellbeing and student mental health, a group of counsellors and researchers have said in a new paper.

They say the field of student mental health is hampered by: vague language; a rush to action by universities in the absence of robust evidence; and a lack of overall coordination and collaboration in the collection and use of data on student mental health and wellbeing.

Their paper argues that the field needs to use clearer and more consistent language, including to describe the difference between student mental health and wellbeing.

It adds that using “generic terms that attempt to capture the full range of student issues and experiences actually conflate substantially different student populations.”

they also say that more robust data must be collected on student wellbeing and on the outcomes from university counselling services, and this collection must be done in a more systematic and strategic way.

Enhance students' lives

The team says these issues must be addressed in order to provide the necessary evidence to develop and deliver appropriate interventions to underpin and enhance the quality of students’ lives and learning while at university or college.

Their paper – published in Counselling and Psychotherapy Research Journal – is a rare example of academics and counselling practitioners coming together to develop research and practice.

It is the first publication from the SCORE consortium – which stands for Student Counselling Outcomes, Research and Evaluation. The group is made up of researchers from universities and BACP as well as members of our University and Colleges Division, who are practising counsellors and/or heads of university counselling services.

In the spotlight

Emma Broglia, Senior Research Fellow at BACP, said:

“Student mental health is an issue that’s in the spotlight, within the higher education sector and the media.

“This paper is a starting point for research into university counselling services having a sector-wide impact and playing a greater role in the conversations and policy decisions about student mental health.

 “It’s crucial that this work involves practitioners as well as academics. Research using data from their counselling services will ultimately lead to recommendations about how services can be improved and provide guidance for the sector. As a research team, we’re pleased to be working alongside our members on such an important project.”

Increased concerns

Charlotte Williams, Head of University Counselling Service at Birkbeck, University of London, said:

 “There is a danger in light of increased concerns around student wellbeing and mental health, increased pressure on universities to support students, prevent suicide and navigate economic challenges that we panic, restructure, do away with effective services and replace them with the latest trend that holds little evidence base.”

“We need to pause, think together, collect and study the data, define a common understanding of wellbeing and mental health and use evidence rooted in practice to inform decisions and policies going forwards.

“This is the kind of initiative that a number of us in the sector have discussed and tried to carry out on several occasions over the last twenty years. We are therefore delighted that the BACP research team and Sheffield University’s Michael Barkham are supporting us and the sector to bring about change.”

Student wellbeing

The paper refers to student wellbeing as targeting positive feeling and reflecting a resourcefulness to deal with the pressure of challenges of student life and learning.

Many initiatives at universities have focused on this in recent years, says the paper.

Student mental health

Referring to student mental health, the paper says: “In contrast to wellbeing, mental health issues and psychological distress pertain to a subgroup of the student population where specific issues are having a negative impact on the person (e.g., excessive worry, panic, depression, isolation) and who do not feel that have the inner capacity to address the experiences.”

The consortium aims to address the issues raised in the paper with future research into the effectiveness of university counselling services.

Research rooted in practice

Louise Knowles, Head of University Counselling Service at University of Sheffield, said:

“A key driver for our services is that any research is rooted in practice. Aligning our embedded counselling and mental health services with research, creates a great opportunity for our institutions to offer a meaningful and considered response to student mental health”

Mark Fudge, Head of University Counselling Service at Keele University, added:

“University counselling services in the UK have adapted to work with both an increase in demand and complexity of presentations.  In addition to pre and post intervention measures SCORE will also explore the unique demographic of students who access in house counselling services."

Read the full paper.