Improving young people’s mental health

How much does social media help or hinder young people’s efforts to seek support for their emotional wellbeing? What challenges do students face when accessing services and how might they navigate them? Is there sufficient support available for students with autism?

These are some of the questions that lie at the heart of a series of new research projects led by the University of Bristol’s Elizabeth Blackwell Institute. These research projects are part of a University of Bristol wide commitment to improving the mental health of its staff and students as well as young people more widely.

Rachael Gooberman-Hill, Director of Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, said: “Mental health is one of the most challenging public health issues of our time, with increasing concern about mental health challenges facing young people in particular. As we mark World Mental Health Day, it’s important to focus on the steps being taken to improve mental health and wellbeing for young people. Research is at the heart of increasing our understanding, so together we can tackle this head on.”

As highlighted by a recent House of Commons inquiry, while the impact of social media on mental health is much discussed, there is little high quality evidence about the specific causes and effects. Oliver Davis is one of four researchers to have been awarded funding by the Institute to fill those gaps in knowledge.

“Today’s young people live their lives online, which makes social media a vital source of information,” said Oliver. “If we can understand the helpful and harmful ways people use social media, we will be better equipped to design interventions to promote good mental health.”

Nicholas Turner is exploring the accessibility of university services. He said: “It’s important that we develop a better understanding of how and where young people seek help, what kind of support they feel is needed, and what barriers they face when it comes to accessing services. These insights can then guide universities as they consider what resources to provide and how to reach students who need them.”

Lucy Biddle is similarly focused on understanding how online services provided by universities might be improved to reach students who are suicidal.

“Increasing levels of mental health crisis and suicide are being reported amongst UK student populations,” said Lucy. “It is unclear how best to respond to this problem, since young people are sometimes reluctant to seek help with their mental health. While online services do exist, we could benefit from knowing more about how much students engage with these.”

For people with autism, mental health issues can be particularly pronounced, especially among those who are cognitively-able and who attend university. Yet little is actually known about their experience of mental health. Felicity Sedgewick hopes to redress that imbalance by studying whether and how students with autism access support, and how useful they find it.

“This could highlight their particular needs to staff and wellbeing services, ultimately creating a better experience for our autistic students,” said Felicity.

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