Student Psychological Intervention Trial (SPIT)

The primary goal of the feasibility study is to determine whether a recently developed web-based intervention is effective in alleviating the symptoms of mild to moderate levels of anxiety and/or depression among third level students.

In order to do this, we recruited 1,948 first year undergraduate students when they commenced university in September 2019, across the 4 Ulster University campuses (Belfast, Coleraine, Magee and Jordanstown) and in Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT), County Donegal. A pilot study of the intervention is planned for Spring 2020 and then the full randomised control trial (Phase 2) will commence in Autumn 2020.

The project is supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).


A number of recent studies have documented the increasing incidence of depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders among the student population. In September 2015, we invited first year undergraduate students to take part in the Ulster University Student Wellbeing Study at the beginning of their time at university.

This study was conducted as part of the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative.

Over 1600 students participated, providing a saliva sample to analyse the biological factors related to mental health disorders, and approximately 900 completed a survey to establish their rates of mental disorders (Overall, 739 fully completed the survey).

Similar to other recent studies in the UK and Ireland, we found alarmingly high rates of mental health issues among our students, with over half of all students reporting that they had experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their life.

Another important finding from our study was that, although many students reported problems with their mental health, a low percentage of these students were willing to seek help using the on-campus counselling service or other available options - see

Research has suggested that there may be a reluctance among students, due to embarrassment, fear of stigma or a lack of awareness of their problems.

Third level institutions are an excellent place to provide support and assistance to those with mental health problems, but results from our study, and others, suggest that the current support may not be sufficient.

The internet can play an important role in developing new, alternative interventions that may appeal to young people in particular.

Many people use the internet to get information about their symptoms, so it could be an important platform to develop new tools.

Recently, internet-based programmes, that deliver support online based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), have shown promise in treating conditions such as depression and anxiety, in other settings.


One of the main aims of this study is to assess risk and protective factors for mental health problems among students in Ulster University and LYIT, in order to ensure that their college experience is a positive one.

The primary goal of the feasibility study is to determine whether a recently developed web-based intervention is effective in alleviating the symptoms of mild to moderate levels of anxiety and/or depression among third level students.

  • To test this, we will compare the level of symptoms of depression and anxiety in students in a randomised control trial, comparing routine campus-based wellbeing services with treatment which includes, the online intervention.
  • We will determine depressive/anxiety symptoms as well as quality of life before and after the interventions.
  • The results of this study will determine whether the addition of the intervention, to the current mental health services, would enhance the support options, and increase help-seeking among students.
  • We will also collect saliva samples from participating students in order to analyse biological factors related to mental disorders, and examine biological changes that influence adherence, and response to the intervention.

We will conduct focus groups to to establish the factors that influence treatment uptake, adherence and the success of the online intervention.

Our Research

Phase 1

Phase 1 of the study will involve providing all first-year undergraduate students with details about the study prior to them registering at the university/college. See Participant Information Sheet – Phase 1.

At the start of their first semester volunteers will provide further information about the SPIT project, take informed written consent, collect a saliva sample and provide a link to an on-line survey.

Researchers will analyse the data, identifying potential students with mild to moderate levels of depression and/or anxiety.

These students will be contacted to establish if they would be willing to take part in the randomised control trial. (Note: a detailed participant information sheet for Phase 2 will be provided).  We hope to recruit in the region of 100 student participants for this second phase of the study.

Phase 2

Phase 2 of the study will involve a telephone interview, conducted by a trained researcher, and participants will be sent a link to an online mental health questionnaire.

Participants will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: treatment as usual (TAU) only, or TAU plus a web-based intervention.  If assigned to the intervention group, they will be given access to the web-based intervention.

If they are part of the TAU group, they will be provided with information about the care available at their institution (UU/LYIT) and encouraged to contact them to avail of the services.

Following the intervention or TAU, participants will be sent a link to the online post-treatment questionnaires and asked to complete follow-up questionnaires at 6 and 12 months after beginning the study. At 12 months they will be asked to take part in a follow-up phone interview.

Focus Groups

Some students may also be asked to consider taking part in a focus group to establish the factors that influence uptake, adherence and the success of the intervention in targeting depression and anxiety.



Dr Elaine Murray

Lecturer in Stratified Medicine (Mental Health)

School of Biomedical Sciences

Professor Tony Bjourson

Professor of Genomics

School of Biomedical Sciences

Areas of expertise Personalised medicine, testing, genomics, bioinformatics.

Professor Colum Walsh

Professor of Genetics

School of Biomedical Sciences

Areas of expertise Molecular diagnostics, genetic epidemiology, virology, bioinformatics

Professor Siobhan O'Neill

Professor of Mental Health Sciences

School of Psychology

Areas of expertise Mental health and wellbeing, trauma, suicidal behaviour.


Dr Elaine Murray (PI)

Dr Margaret McLafferty (Research Associate, UU)

Dr Rachel McHugh (Research Assistant, LYIT)

Caoimhe Ward (PhD Researcher)