Thinking differently about ‘student mental health and wellbeing’ – learning from undergraduates’ storied ‘university life’ self-reflections

Sutherland, Heather Ann (2024) Thinking differently about ‘student mental health and wellbeing’ – learning from undergraduates’ storied ‘university life’ self-reflections. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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Background: Increasing rates of university student mental distress are being recorded; continuation of this upward trend remains apparent. Current explorations of students’ mental health and wellbeing primarily use quantitative approaches, contributing to significant gaps in qualitative understanding.

Aim: To explore undergraduates' accounts and self-reflections regarding their own mental health and wellbeing within their overall experiences of student life.

Methodological Approach: After in-depth examination of key definitions and perspectives traditionally underpinning research in this area, and drawing on elements of suicide loss lived experience, principles guiding the Power, Threat, Meaning Framework, and sociological perspectives on affect and emotion were together used as the research design lens. Free Association Narrative interviews fronted by a social media elicitation task were employed to foreground students’ own storytelling and meaning-making in reference to their mental health, distress and wellbeing experiences. Each participant engaged in interviews at two timepoints in 2020 and 2021.

Analysis: Twenty-one undergraduates at a university in the Northeast of the UK participated. Through data analysis using reflexive thematic analysis, identified were parallel-running and interweaving elements in the students’ mental health, distress and wellbeing stories. First, within their ‘General Life’, students thematically located their experiences in their overall-life contexts in terms of ‘Time’; ‘Place/Space’; ‘Relationships’; ‘Loss ‘and ‘Macro-level Threads’. Second, within their ‘University Life’, stories displayed mental health, distress and wellbeing aspects connected to particular elements of their university; the themes presented are ‘Institution-led Mechanisms, Systems and Procedures’; ‘University-bordered Relationships’; ‘University as a Mirror’ and ‘University-Specific Meanings, Perceptions and Expectations’. Third, uniting students’ general and university lives and experiences, their ‘Felt Life’ was explored – common emotion underpinnings to their mental health, distress and wellbeing experiences comprised of three key sentiments: ‘Feeling in Control’; ‘Feeling Secure’ and ‘Feeling Recognised’.

Contribution: The contribution of this thesis is multi-pronged. The methodological approach employed demonstrates the importance of over-time and multi-level qualitative engagement with students as key to making visible what may be obscured by continued reliance on traditional data collection methods. Turning to the content, offered here are two elements; first, a different, wider-contextual understanding on risk factors for negative student mental health and wellbeing, and second, a theoretical framework of the emotions that underpin student mental health and wellbeing risk factors. The emotional undercurrents to university-connected mental health, distress and wellbeing experiences are insightful as an important, yet at present still under-appreciated, aspect of student mental health and wellbeing. The thesis encourages review of existing in-response university support approaches and mechanisms (in specific reference to, for example, student bereavements and study programs including placements) in light of such findings. Cumulatively, this research overall acts as an invitation to augment existing perspectives and approaches to university student mental health, distress and wellbeing through re-evaluation and discussion regarding how these may be conceptualised differently and alternatively understood.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: sociology of emotions, qualitative research, reflexive thematic analysis, power threat meaning framework, free association narrative interviews
Subjects: C800 Psychology
X900 Others in Education
Department: Faculties > Health and Life Sciences > Psychology
University Services > Graduate School > Doctor of Philosophy
Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 01 Feb 2024 11:50
Last Modified: 01 Feb 2024 12:00

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