Module 5, Topic 5
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Theme 18: Research, innovation and dissemination

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What does it cover?

  • Supporting research into student mental health and wellbeing
  • Supporting evidence informed innovation and the testing of new interventions
  • Supporting collaboration across the sector
  • Supporting dissemination of good practice and new evidence
  • Closing the gap between support services practice and research

Principles of good practice

18.1. Universities support research into university mental health and wellbeing and the development of innovative good practice.

18.2. Universities encourage collaboration and dissemination of learning between research and practice, between disciplines and between universities and relevant organisations.

18.3. Universities undertake rigorous and systematic evaluation of services and interventions that informs decision making and continuous improvement.

18.4. Universities enable support services staff to participate in, lead and disseminate research.

Why is this theme important and what matters?

One of the challenges in addressing university staff and student mental health is the significant gap in our current evidence base[1]. At present, we do not know the prevalence rates of poor mental health or mental illness in either the student or staff populations or the effectiveness of many of the commonly provided interventions[123]. Much of the available research is also based on work within a single university, leaving doubts about generalisability.

Alongside this, many interventions that are available in universities are not evaluated in context or, where they are, the evaluations are not shared outside of the institution to support sector learning[4] . All of which means that there is a lack of clarity about what constitutes good practice. In truth, this is not surprising.

The apparent surge in need for mental health support is still a relatively recent phenomenon[5]. The experiences of students prior to and during university have changed markedly in recent years, as have the experiences of university staff and there have been notable societal shifts in the same short space of time. Whilst student mental health has long been an area of focus within universities, there is much in this space that is new and not yet well understood.

Many of the participants in the focus groups and surveys indicated that they had a definite need to better understand what good, effective practice is and how they can evaluate their own interventions. Given that interventions for wellbeing also have the potential to cause harm[67], it is vital this is addressed and that effective evaluation is embedded into the work of universities and is used to inform the development of interventions and services.

Much work within social sciences suggests that addressing this gap will require cross–disciplinary collaborations, involving researchers and practitioners and bringing together universities of differing size and type [8].

Cross–disciplinary research can bring together a range of
perspectives, increasing the depth of our understanding and
making it more likely that we can find adaptable solutions.

Many support services staff in the Charter focus groups indicated that they would like to be more involved in the production and dissemination of research. Research into student mental health is often conducted without the involvement of support services staff in design or implementation. As a result, this research can produce findings that are detached from day to day practice and recommendations that cannot be implemented, in reality, within universities. Although it may be tempting to franchise research out to academics within the institution or private companies, if support services staff are not embedded into the research process, with the understanding and opportunity to guide the study, this risks findings that do not contribute to more effective practice[9] .

Staff in professional service roles indicated that it can be difficult to get support for their involvement in research– even within more research–intensive universities. Being involved in producing research, publishing it or presenting at conferences was seen as a ‘luxury’ or ‘nice to have’ and not an important part of the work of a Service.

Recent work in the sector is helping to drive improvements in research and practice, founded on increased collaboration. SMaRteN, the student mental health research network, is helping to bring together research across disciplines and recent OfS Challenge Competitions have supported the building of cross–institution collaborations[1011]. These national initiatives help to establish a framework to address the current gaps in our knowledge.

The obligations that this brings for universities will differ markedly depending upon the nature of the institution. For traditional, medium to large sized universities, it may be expected that they prioritise research in this area, bringing together research expertise and the clinical expertise of staff in support services. For others without these resources, it may be possible to support this agenda through collaborations with larger partners, by encouraging staff and students to act as participants in the research of others and in the regular evaluation of their own practice. To ensure generalisability, this requires establishment of more cross institutional collaborations, between providers of different size and type.

Importance should also be given to the sharing of research and evaluated good practice across the sector. Publishing in the literature and via knowledge exchange platforms and presenting at conferences on university mental health should be seen as a valid use of resources for academics and professional support staff.

Finally, it is important that this is seen as a cross–sector agenda,
bringing together universities and expertise in collaboration
and not in competition.


1. Barkham, M., Broglia, E., Dufour, G., et al. on behalf of the SCORE Consortium (2019). Towards an evidence–base for student wellbeing and mental health: Definitions, developmental transitions and data sets. Couns. Psychother. Res.; 00: pp. 1– 7. . DOI:
2. Locke, B. D., Bieschke, K. J., Castonguay, L. G., & Hayes, J.A. (2016). The center for collegiate mental health: studying college student mental health through an innovative research infrastructure that brings science and practice together. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 20 (4), pp. 233– 245.
3. Byrom, N. (2018). Academic Perspective: Research gaps in student mental health [Online] What Works Wellbeing .–perspective–research–gaps–in–student–mental–health/. [Accessed: [Accessed 10/10/19]]
4. Broglia, E., Millings, A. & Barkham, M. (2018) Challenges to addressing student mental health in embedded counselling services: a survey of UK higher and further education institutions, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 46(4), pp. 441–455, . DOI: DOI:10.1080/03069885.2017.1370695
5. House of Commons Library (2019). Support for students with mental health issues in higher education in England. London: UK Commons Library, pp.1–16.
6. Berk, M. & Parker, G. (2009). The Elephant on the Couch: Side–Effects of Psychotherapy. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(9), pp. 787–794. . DOI:
7. Britton, W.B. (2019) Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, pp 159–165. . DOI:
8. Campbell, D. T. (2005). Ethnocentrism of Disciplines and the Fish–Scale Model of Omniscience. In Derry, S. J., Schunn, C. D. & Gernsbacher, M. A. (Eds.), Interdisciplinary collaboration: An emerging cognitive science (pp. 3–21). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
9. Hughes, G. (In Press). The Challenge of Student Mental Wellbeing: Reconnecting Students Services with the Academic Universe. In: Kek, M & Huijser, H. (ed) Student Support Services: Exploring impact on student engagement, experience and learning. Springer.
10. SMaRteN (2019). About SMaRteN. [online]. [Accessed: [Accessed 10/10/19].]
11. Office for Students (2019). OfS Challenge Competition: Achieving a step change in mental health outcomes for all students – Office for Students. [online] Officeforstudents. Available at: .. publications/ofs–challenge–competition–achieving–a–step– change–in–mental–health–outcomes–for–all–students/. [Accessed: [Accessed 10/10/19]]