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The Student Psychological Intervention Trial (SPIT) has received additional funding of almost £20,000 from the Health and Social Care Research and Development (HSC R&D) Division, Public Health Agency, to specifically explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mental health and to get their perspective on how COVID-19 has impacted on them personally in relation to their studies and overall wellbeing.

The SPIT study, led by Ulster University and in partnership with Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT), in Donegal, ROI, is one of 11 trials in the Cross-border Healthcare Intervention Trials in Ireland Network (CHITIN). CHITIN is a unique cross-border partnership, between the HSC R & D Division of the Public Health Agency, NI, and the Health Research Board, ROI.

The two-phase SPIT study is being conducted as part of the World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative. In September 2019, Phase 1 of the study commenced across the four Ulster University (UU) campuses in Northern Ireland and at LYIT.

The first phase aims to examine and identify risk and protective factors for mental health problems and wellbeing in the student population during their first three years at university. Throughout the study students have access to support and any high-risk students receive support from Student Wellbeing (UU) or an accredited councillor at LYIT.  Baseline data was collected as students commenced university/college for the first time. Follow up surveys have now commenced for their second year of study and will be conducted again next year as students start their third year of university.

The overall student experience has changed considerably as a result of COVID-19, it will be beneficial to compare prevalence rates of mental health issues including depression and anxiety currently and in a year’s time to baseline data, to assess the long-term impact of the pandemic on student mental health.

Following receipt of the additional funding, COVID-19 related questions have been added to this year’s survey to provide insight on how the current pandemic has affected student’s mental health and their time at university. Participants are asked if they, or someone they are close to, had COVID and how they were treated. The survey also enquires about how much stress they had in different areas of their life since the outbreak, such as finances, isolation, worrying about COVID, family relationships etc. Participants are also asked how the pandemic impacted on their studies in relation to the move to online learning, issues with technology, their family situation and support from family and their course team, motivation to learn, anxiety, sleep patterns etc. The findings from this survey may be of benefit to universities and colleges, helping them to tailor the delivery of teaching and services to support student wellbeing.

Phase two of the study will involve a pilot study and the subsequent trial of a novel, guided, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) based intervention, developed by colleagues in Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, for those with mild to moderate levels of depression and/or anxiety. The pilot study is due to commence later this month, and the full randomised control trial (RCT) will start in Spring 2021. Focus groups will also be conducted with participants and staff to determine how effective the delivery and implementation of the intervention has been for the students, including the success of using online web-platforms for intervention. The development of online interventions, such as this, may be particularly beneficial in the current climate, when access  to in person support services is limited. If effective, this intervention could be implemented in universities across the UK and Ireland.

Lead investigator Dr Elaine Murray, Lecturer in Stratified Medicine at Ulster University said,

“The high prevalence of mental health issues among the student population at universities across the UK and Ireland has been widely documented as young people transition to a new way of living and learning, often far from home. We hope that the SPIT study will help identify the factors influencing mental health and wellbeing in students and trial a novel way to provide support through online CBT-intervention.”

“As well as a follow-up and comparison to the year before, we hope that the additional Covid-19 related questions will provide us with insight and information on how students were affected by the current pandemic.”

Dr Rhonda Campbell, CHITIN Programme Manager commented:

“It is widely accepted that there is a need to boost support for research investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. Recognising the value and importance of the undergraduate student population already enrolled on the SPIT study in addressing this unmet need, Health & Social Care Research & Development Division, Public Health Agency, is delighted to supplement funding for the SPIT study, one of 11 CHITIN trials, so that they can also survey those undergraduate students who have volunteered to be a part of this research, specifically on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study is part of the Cross-border Healthcare Intervention Trials In Ireland Network – CHITIN, supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.

For more information on the CHITIN Project please visit:

Keep up with progress of the study via Twitter: @chitinproject  @spit_project