SMaRteN has just announced its first funding call. We’re looking to support researchers in answering the question what is distinctive about student mental health?
Give it a little thought and you’ll soon find that there are many ways of interpreting this question and many methods that could be applied to answering it. In this blog post, I’d like to talk about one way of looking at the problem – through the lens of economics.
Economics is about understanding how people and organisations make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions might be. Often, this comes down to weighing up the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. Here are just a few examples of the types of questions that get economists thinking.
What determines student wellbeing?
This might not seem like a question to interest an economist, but it is. Many researchers in the field are keen to understand what it is that influences health and wellbeing, especially factors other than health care.
Student life has a variety of distinctive features that could influence mental health. We know that a person’s level of education is one of the most important correlates of health outcomes. Yet, we know little about how being in education can affect your health. There’s evidence that moving home can be stressful for young people, but how students’ health-related quality of life might be affected by this is unknown.
The economist’s toolbox can be useful here. Statistical analysis of large datasets using econometric methods can reveal relationships between individuals’ wellbeing and common features of student life. We can also study how these relationships might vary across different groups of people. This can help to identify inequalities and guide better targeting of services.
Which services do students need?
The notion of scarcity is at the heart of economics. There aren’t endless funds available to support student wellbeing, so we need to figure out how best to allocate resources.
Part of the challenge is to understand the demand for services. We need to know what types of services students are using, when they’re using them, and which groups of people are seeking health care. But that isn’t the whole story. Students might also have different views to the general public on what is important in life, and so their wellbeing may be defined in a different way. The types of services that are valuable in the community might not translate well if provided in a university setting.
Many economists enjoy crunching data on service use and using it to understand how people access care and whether there are any barriers to access. We also like to use choice experiments to understand what it is that people value. By asking people to make a series of choices between alternative services, we can identify the features that respondents prefer and how decisions about service use are made.
How much does it cost to support students with mental health difficulties?
Oscar Wilde fans will be aware that a cynic ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. An economist, on the other hand, needs to know both. We need to understand what students think is important and which services are best at improving outcomes. But, in order to change practice, we also need to know what services cost, and how this might differ from other settings.
Universities, the NHS, and local decisionmakers are all stakeholders in students’ mental health. Often, they are also budget-holders for services used by students. The presence of multiple providers and funders could make service provision for students especially difficult, as costs are borne by different sectors. It isn’t possible to make decisions in the interest of students and wider society without information on costs. As part of our work, the SMaRteN team will be seeking to develop a resource use measure to understand the cost of supporting students with mental health difficulties.
SMaRteN is made up of researchers from many different disciplines and we’re looking to build research capacity across a diverse selection of fields. Our first funding call is a fantastic opportunity for social scientists of all shapes (including economists!) to take on the challenge of understanding the distinctive features of student mental health.
Chris Sampson, Senior Economist, The Office of Health Economics
We are using this blog to help connect stakeholders across Higher Education interested in student mental health. If you have a project you are working on or an idea you'd like to develop, why not write your own blog post for us?