May 08 2017

Researching the wellbeing of students

Professor Antonia Bifulco, Dr Stephen Nunn, Dr Ruth Spence, Deborah Rodriguez and Dr Lisa Kagan of the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies at Middlesex University have been using a novel online approach called CLEAR to investigate the mental health and wellbeing of degree students. Here Dr Lisa Kagan gives an overview of the research and its findings so far.

We wanted to understand more about student life events. Our ESRC-funded research project ‘Stress online’, led by Professor Antonia Bifulco, involved designing and testing an online platform called CLEAR (Computerised Life Events Assessment Record).  CLEAR is based on and mimics a widely used interview of life events. The reason for going online rather than using the traditional interview is that it is more private and less time consuming but more personal and detailed than a questionnaire.

CLEAR looks at many different life events which fall under the broad categories of lifestyle, health and relationships. Examples of a life event could be things that are milestones like starting university and graduating, to having your computer hacked, relationship break up, illness etc. Unlike conventional life events questionnaires which would give a generic score for a particular life event, CLEAR helps the participants to think about the surrounding context of the event. The participant is then asked to give a rating of how negative and how positive the event was on a scale of 1-5.  Personalised feedback is provided upon completion about their individual life events and psychological wellbeing.

What did we want to look at?

We also added in a variety of questionnaires looking at depression, wellbeing and health and had access to student’s grades. A final questionnaire we used measures something called attachment style, which looks at how we relate to others – either in a secure, trusting manner or in a more insecure way such as fearing rejection. We know from previous research that having an underlying insecure attachment and then experiencing a severe life event is related to depression. We wanted to see if our new measure would also show this. Over the past year we asked students as well as a previously depressed group and a control group take part in our study to see what CLEAR can tell us about this.

University students - Photo by NEC Corporation of America (Creative Commons 2.0)

Photo by NEC Corporation of America (Creative Commons 2.0)

Who took part?

Altogether 328 participants completed CLEAR, including 126 Middlesex students. Most were first year psychology students and the vast majority were female. Not surprisingly, almost a third of all student events in the last year were related to education.  Work, health and partner events were also common ones, and along with education events, were more likely to be ones that were rated as very negative. The average number of life events was 2 per student with the highest being 8!

What did we find?

What was interesting was that 35% of students reported feeling depressed at some point over the past year which was much higher than the midlife control group (8%). They also reported lower feelings of general wellbeing and unlike the midlife samples, positive events did not seem to make any difference to feelings of wellbeing. Consistent with our previous studies, students who filled out CLEAR who had an insecure attachment style and a very negative life event were more likely to experience feelings of depression.

With regards to student grades, those who achieved higher grades were less likely to have experienced feelings of depression, were more secure in their attachment and had not experienced traumatic events over the past year. Contrary to what we might have expected, experiencing general negative life events did not have an impact on grades.

What next?

Of particular interest and cause for concern is the general psychological wellbeing of students and how they can be supported in this time of life. Although most of the student sample were female first year psychology students, these levels of depression are consistent with media reports. We are hoping in the future that CLEAR will identify students who may be at risk for depression and other mental health issues due to ongoing life events. They can then be signposted to the appropriate services and receive the support they need.  We also hope it will help people have a better understanding of their stress and its impact on their health through the personalised feedback at the end.

We know anecdotally that some participants felt that the measure helped them to think about their experiences over the past year and how they dealt with them. We are still collecting data as part of a further study looking at student wellbeing. If you are a student interested in having a go at CLEAR please email us at and we will give you a personal login.

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