Peer support for university mental health: Can non-professional interventions improve student mental health and reduce demand for professional services?


Supervisor: Juliet Foster

Non-accademic partner: Student Minds

A recent large-scale international study identified that 31% of students screened positive for at least one common mental health disorder in the past year (Auerbach et al., 2018). As the number of students reporting mental distress and seeking support from University support services increases, organisations including Universities UK and Student Minds are advocating a settings-based approach, considering mental health across the whole institution. This approach favours grassroots participation (Muntaner et al., 2000): peer support can be conceptualised one such ‘organic’ approach. Bringing together students with similar experiences to share knowledge for mutual benefit is expected to allow people to give and receive help (Mead, Hilton, & Curtis, 2001) and reduce loneliness (Solomon, 2004), building the form of social support that is protective against the development of depression (Hunt & Eisenberg, 2010).

This project will evaluate the efficacy of peer support groups for depressive symptoms, comparing outcomes for students who do and do not engage with groups. This is ground-breaking research; while there has been extensive research into the efficacy of interventions focused on the individual student, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, peer support in universities has received minimal attention.

The project will use a mixed methods approach. Mental health and wellbeing outcomes will be compared for students who do and do not attend peer support groups. Qualitative research, including interviews and focus groups, will be undertaken to build a deeper understanding of the impact of peer support as an ‘organic’ settings-based approach.

As part of their collaboration with the project, Student Minds will offer the holder of the studentship a three-month work placement, to gain an understanding of support and policy activity. The project will link into other relevant work being undertaken by the UKRI funded Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN).”,
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