Building student mental health research on a global scale

23 January 2023

A feature from our 2020-2022 Research Report – Read More

Student engagement is an integral part of Associate Professor Kristin Cleverley’s research into student and youth mental health. For her, students are not just research participants, they are also partners in research design, and are currently helping shape the creation of one of the first global partnerships in student mental health research led by the University of Toronto.

Inlight, the University of Toronto’s Student Mental Research Initiative is chaired by Cleverley and aims to enhance student mental health and wellness in direct collaboration with students, institutions, and community partners through the creation of innovative and scalable research. In 2021, Cleverley received the prestigious Connaught Global Challenge Award from the University of Toronto as well the university’s inaugural Connaught Global Research Impact Program Award (C-GRIP), which supports international research mobility. The goal of the project is to address an existing critical gap in the field of student mental health research.

“Student mental health research in Canada is still in its infancy, and it is a shared global challenge,” says Cleverley, “what is exciting about Inlight and the Connaught funding we have received, is that we are able to create an international network of researchers with shared expertise, to move the science of student mental health forward.”

In partnership with international institutions such as King’s College London, the University of Sydney, and National Taiwan University, Inlight has fostered a global speaker series and global consensus conference to engage students first and foremost in high quality, impactful research that supports better student mental health on campus.

The purpose of this first phase of the funded project is to establish connections with global partners and lay the foundation for broader global research collaborations.

Rozina Somani, who is a member of the Global Student Working Group supporting the project, says the opportunities presented by phase one, including partnering with international researchers, has had a tremendous impact.

“As an international student, I have a unique perspective on the importance of accessible mental health services, and I understand the challenge that myself and my peers have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Somani, who is also a PhD student at the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing pursuing a collaborative specialization in global health. “Being able to share this knowledge with international partners to develop shared language and resources around mental health for students is momentous.”

The Global Student Working Group, with the support of the project Engagement Lead, Emma McCann, has been instrumental to developing the program’s successful global health speakers’ series. These virtual webinars share evidence-based knowledge and strategies around specific topics impacting students such as classroom stressors, microaggressions, self-injury and self-harm. The first of these events brought together researchers from over 25 countries.

Somani, alongside members of the Global Student Working Group from other partner universities, has had an integral role in co-designing the global consensus study to identify student mental health research priorities.

“Developing a shared understanding of what constitutes student mental health as definitions vary from country to country is so important,” says Somani. “With our continued focus on shared engagement, we are able to create a foundation from which we as researchers can build from.”

In phase two of the Connaught funded projects, the focus will turn to bolstering international research exchange with students from partner universities being welcomed to U of T and vice versa, allowing students to share their expertise on an international scale. The exchange program aims to be launched in the Spring of 2023.

McCann describes the underlying principle of phase 2 as one that recognizes students are part of a shared global community.

“Many of the challenges we have in supporting mental health is a shared challenge,” says McCann. “Recognizing that our students belong to a global community means that we also need shared solutions.”

In preparation for these international exchange opportunities, McCann and the global student working group are also co-designing e-modules that will serve as key preparations for international research exchange opportunities. These modules will feature components that help users gain a better understanding of mental health on campus,  and are designed in collaboration with members from all partner universities. These e-modules can be taken by staff, faculty and researchers who want to gain a better understanding of the shared challenges facing students and their mental health.

“The beauty of this project is its true global reach,” adds Somani. “The creation of a foundation of knowledge and the engagement of multiple collaborators, including students from various disciplines, allows us to have a true global perspective.”

Cleverley notes that these emerging international partnerships will have a profound impact on scaling up current work around student mental health, and will transform the way we understand and support student and youth mental health, leading to high-impact and long-term global outcomes.

“We are in the midst of co-designing evidence-based solutions and recommendations with, and for, students,” says Cleverley. “Students are our future researchers; they are our future mental health leaders.”