Exploring help-seeking behaviour for Mental Health in Higher Education students

Project Details


In recent years, the number of university students with a serious mental illness has risen significantly (Storrie et al., 2010). These increases have been observed in the US, Canada, Australia, Turkey and the U.K. (Macaskill, 2013). For the 2019-2020 academic year, approximately 105,590 students in the U.K. recorded a mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia (HESA Higher Education Student Statistics, 2020). This marks approximately a 99% increase from the 2016-17 academic year where approximately 53,045 students recorded a mental health condition (Cage et al., 2020). This increase is presenting a huge crisis in mental health across University establishment (Macaskill, 2013). 
It has been suggested that this crisis in mental health is due to the increase in student numbers across U.K. Universities with students attending from a wider sector of society. Also, students are now experiencing greater financial pressures with a reduction in financial support from the Government (Macaskill, 2013). University students are often regarded as a vulnerable population due to (i) being at higher risk of developing mental health disorders with the peak onset for mental health challenges being before the age of 24 years (Kessler et al., 2007), and (ii) having a lower propensity to seek help for any mental health challenges they experience (Sagar-Ouriaghli et al., 2020).
Seeking help for mental health challenges by University students has a lot of barriers and according to a recent systematic review these can be divided into factors internal to the person (e.g. mental health literacy; mental health problems, emotional state; fear of disclosure (stigma); lack of knowledge about where to seek support) and factors external to the person (e.g. knowledge, beliefs and attitudes of the university community; available support services; Hartrey et al., 2017)). From the 19 studies that were included in the systematic review, only two studies focused on U.K. University Student populations. One study was conducted at the Faculty level exploring how they responded to their students (Stanley & Manthorpe, 2001) and the other focused upon the use of support for students with mental health challenges in Higher Education (Quinn et al., 2009). Hence, there is a huge gap in the literature with regard to the barriers faced by students when seeking help for mental health challenges experiences when in attendance at a U.K. University.
The aim of the current project is to explore further the barriers to seeking mental health support within U.K. University students. The study will explore this using the COM-B Model (Michie et al., 2011). The COM-B model suggests that a particular behaviour will occur when the person concerned has the capability and opportunity to engage in said behaviour and is more motivated to enact that behaviour than any other behaviours. Capability reflects both the physical capability and psychological capability (e.g., understanding and memory of a person). Opportunity includes the physical opportunity (e.g., resources) and social opportunity (e.g., culture and social norms). Finally, motivation includes both reflective motivation (e.g., conscious thought processes) and automatic motivation (e.g., desires and habits). Currently, the COM-B model has been used extensively to develop and evaluate interventions across a number of behaviours e.g. washing hands, cardiovascular disease (cf. Howlett et al., 2019; West et al., 2020) and has previously been used to develop and evaluate an intervention aimed at increasing help-seeking behaviour for mental health in males in Higher Education (Sagar-Ouriaghli et al., 2020). However, the COM-B model has not previously been used to explore help-seeking behaviour for mental health challenges in Higher Education Students, and therefore the proposed study will be the first of its kind.

Key findings

The overarching aim of the project is to explore help-seeking behaviours for mental health challenges in Higher Education students.

Focusing on the application of the COM-B model, the current project will identify the barriers that prevent students in Higher Education from reporting, and seeking help for, mental health challenges/disorders.

To examine student experience and understanding of mental health challenges and explore the types of mental health disorders/challenges they report whilst in Higher Education.

This study is very much exploratory in nature and therefore we have no set hypotheses.
Short titleWhat would it take for you to get help?
Effective start/end date3/05/2131/10/24

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education


  • Higher Education
  • Mental Health
  • Help seeking
  • COM-B


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