Summary of our ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2021 event

Screengrab from the event on the Gather Town platform

By Kieran Balloo and Anesa Hosein

On 16th November we held a free interactive online event to discuss the importance of mental wellbeing amongst university students. This event was primarily targeted at young people who were thinking of attending university (or had just started) and their parents or guardians. This event was part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2021 and was made possible thanks to funding from the University of Surrey’s Economic and Social Research Council Impact Acceleration Account (ESRC IAA), which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

In this blog post, we summarise what we did at the event for the benefit of those who couldn’t make it along.

Gather Town

Using the Gather Town platform, we designed a simulation of different university types, including universities with lots of green space, universities with lots of blue space, historic universities, arts, sports and culture-rich universities, and city-based universities. We did this in order to encourage participants to think about the role of a university’s environment in students’ wellbeing (see Activity 1 below).

Presentation on our research

As participants gathered at the front of the virtual room (see picture above), we began the event with Kieran providing a personal story about recent events in his life that negatively impacted on his wellbeing. Kieran drew a link between his own experiences and those of prospective students when they are about to start university, in terms of the uncertainty they face and the potential feelings that they lack control in their lives (particularly when awaiting exam grades that determine whether they get into university). Kieran and Anesa then discussed some findings from the StudentWellLives project that related to the roles of individuals’ social identities and university attendance in their feelings of life satisfaction and loneliness. Some of these findings have been summarised in these infographics. Kieran then talked about some examples of different environments that have been shown to enhance people’s wellbeing, including accessing green space (e.g. parks and woodlands), blue space (e.g. lakes and the coast), heritage sites (e.g. museums, galleries and theatres), and participating in sports and dance. The idea was to get participants to think about how universities might make better use of their own environments to support students’ wellbeing, which leads us to Activity 1.

Activity 1

Participants were put into groups and set their first activity, which was to watch a video clip of a hypothetical young person entering university (all the videos can be found here), then write a continuation of that character’s story. Each group was asked to move to a different location in Gather Town that represented a different university environment (as discussed above), then incorporate that environment into their story.

Here are two examples of the stories that participants came up with:

Group 1: Continuing the story of David, who went to an Arts, Sport and Culture Rich University
Arts, Sport and Culture Rich University environment in Gather Town

Hi I am David, I’ve just started at a University that has amazing sports facilities and in my first semester I’ve joined lots of groups and clubs, made loads of great friends and I’m absolutely loving it!

I’ve joined the football club and I’m already captain! The team is great fun, though I do miss my home crew too. I’ve tried out lots of new sports too and the swimming pool is superb. Getting fitter by the day! I have become addicted to the gym! I haven’t done a lot of academic work yet, but that’s ok, it’s early days.

I’m in my second year now and the work is much harder. My exam grades from year 1 were not great, I spent a bit too much time on sports! I really need to make more time for my studies but being part of the sports clubs is so important to me and takes up a lot of my time. I have assessments coming up and it’s really stressing me out, the more I put the work off the more stressed I feel. My parents and my tutors keep telling me to manage my time better but the truth is, I care more about sport because it makes me feel good. I’m not sure how to organise myself better and could use some support.

I really enjoyed my assessment last year where I got to talk about my sports and include my hobbies, I wish all assessments could be like that. Now in my final year I have to focus on passing my exams and getting a job, either that or I have to take a gap year and truly focus on professional sport. I’m really confused as to what to do for the best. It is a very stressful time but I decided not to bottle it up, so I reached out to our University wellbeing team and they have helped me prioritise my time. I felt a bit embarrassed but it was really helpful and I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because they’d have been really angry. I still don’t really know what I want to do after Uni.

I have passed! Unbelievable, not sure how I did it. Really glad because my parents will be pleased, and hopefully I’ll get a job, but still unsure what I want to do. Decided to take a year off and work/play sports until I can use my connections and see what comes up.

It’s now a year since I left Uni and I have realised that sport is such a big part of my life, and brings me such happiness that I decided to apply to do a master’s degree in sports science, so that I can hopefully become a sports coach or a sports tutor and pass on my skills and experience to other people. OK so it means more academic work! BUT I feel so passionate about doing this as a career I now have the focus and maturity required to do well at the work and still manage my sports and hobbies on the side. I feel really excited for the future even though it is going to be a big challenge.

Group 2: Continuing the story of Daisy, who went to a Green Space University
Green Space University environment in Gather Town

In her first semester Daisy is commuting to university and focusing on her studies, so she is not aware of different activities to do in her university environment. She decides to involve her nan in her university life to help her adjust. Daisy isn’t initially aware that there is young adult carer support available, but she is signalled to it later by her personal tutor after her first semester. She also joins her commuter network to travel into university with others who live in a similar area. As a way to make friends and relax, she shares her thoughts for the day with her new travel buddy. She doesn’t take up the peer mentor scheme in her first year.

In her second year, Daisy reflects on her own transition to university and decides to become a peer mentor to help new commuter students adjust into university. She realises that she would have benefited from having a peer mentor herself. Although the university has lots of green space which could be good for her wellbeing, she is not always able to have time to make the most of the space. However, on days where she has gaps between lectures she is able to go for walks to enjoy the space, which is positive for her wellbeing. She does ‘colour walks’ that allow her to start noticing the colours of the rainbow in her environment.

In her third year, she takes up some volunteering opportunities. She becomes aware of these opportunities through social media. Her taught courses reduce in her final year, so she has the chance to take part in more activities on campus, like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises. She also has more time to explore the campus, which has allotments and gardens.

We met back in the main room to discuss these stories and reflect on how the student characters were able to make use of the environments of their universities to enhance their wellbeing. It was useful to reflect on how just having access to these beneficial environments might not be enough or could also cause problems in other areas of their lives. For David, the group determined that engaging in sports was positive for his wellbeing, but also distracted him from his studies, so he needed to learn how to better balance his time. For Daisy, she didn’t initially have time to make use of the green space in her university until later on when her timetable enabled space between classes for her to go for walks. The activity enabled participants to think critically about university environments – certain spaces can be beneficial for wellbeing, but there are other things that need to be considered based on students’ backgrounds and individual contexts.

We also reflected on how the stories did not incorporate the Covid pandemic. But we were able, through the stories, to imagine how the disconnect from networks and activities could have affected young people’s mental wellbeing during the pandemic. For example, David who was a ‘sports addict’ would have presumably felt a sense of loss of identity in not being able to play sports, which could have affected his life satisfaction.

Activity 2

Participants were asked to find or create an image that represented the following question: “what does wellbeing mean for you at university?” We each shared our images during the event and explained why we chose our images. Participants could also share their image on Twitter (tagging in @uniwelllives) or Instagram (tagging in @studentwelllives) in order to enter our photo/caption competition. Anesa’s image is below.

End of the session

We ended the session by thanking the participants for coming, the ESRC for funding the event, our partners and project team, and the event co-facilitators: Adeeba Ahmad, Fengmei Zhu, and Beyza Ucar. Special thanks were also given to Beyza Ucar for designing the space in Gather Town and creating the videos and infographics.

We hope that the event encouraged participants to think about the wealth of benefits to student wellbeing that may already exist in different university environments, but also understand how access and take-up of valuable opportunities may be muddied by students’ personal circumstances, backgrounds, and individual contexts.

An ecological model for university environment effects on life outcomes

Proposed ecological model for university environment effects on life outcomes

By Kieran Balloo

Ecological models for understanding health behaviour have proliferated in recent years. Ecological models move away from focusing on individual characteristics alone to consider the role that the environment plays in shaping behaviours. We are using this type of framework to understand impacts on life outcomes in the #StudentWellLives Project. In the figure above, we illustrate our proposed ecological model.

We suggest that mental health during adolescence is likely to shape long-term outcomes. However, whilst mental health problems may occur at an individual level, they may be influenced by individuals’ social identity characteristics, reciprocally and intersectionally, in how they predict these outcomes. We discussed in an earlier blog post, on modelling inequalities in an intersectional framework, how social identities are just proxies for systemic privilege and oppression. So fitting with an ecological model, these identities may also be relevant to think about being at a societal, rather than individual, level. We also propose that these aspects during adolescence will influence whether young people will go to university and the type of environment they choose to go to. During university, that environment may then influence their mental health at that point in time. The exact characteristics of the university environment we are exploring are discussed in our earlier blog posts on the type of environment data that universities should collect and belonging and wellbeing in higher education. For example, we noted that participating in sports or extra-curricular activities may be beneficial for certain students’ wellbeing, so the built environments of universities may act as protective factors (or risk factors) for students’ mental health. We anticipate that all of this will impact on life outcomes. Life outcomes have already been found to be influenced by adolescent mental health (which is at an individual level), in terms of impacts on mental health during young adulthood, education and employment outcomes. Therefore, the #StudentWellLives Project aims to draw on the above ecological framework to consider factors beyond the individual.

We would be interested to hear about how we might adapt the model further, so please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @uniwelllives #StudentWellLives.

Belonging and wellbeing in higher education

Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

By Kieran Balloo

A recent survey of nearly 1000 individuals found that a lack of belonging to the local community may be related to feelings of loneliness. This research found the issue to be particularly acute for individuals from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, who may feel less welcome in their community than White individuals. Conceptualising belonging in higher education is therefore likely to be important too, but this may be difficult since belonging is unlikely to be a fixed state of being. The Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing Handbook views a sense of belonging as being about having “strong connections with others who share your values”, and the authors note that it could be a protective factor that “promote[s] positive mental health and wellbeing”. Thus, whilst it may be difficult to quantify belonging, or the extent to which the university population consists of individuals who share a given student’s values, in this post we will give a short overview of how we are using quantitative data in the #StudentWellLives project to try and understand this situation a little more clearly.

In an earlier post, we discussed how we are using publicly available data from the UK Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) to understand how the cultural, social and built environments of different universities might impact on students’ mental health and wellbeing (both positively and negatively). For example, participating in sports or extra-curricular activities may be beneficial for certain students’ wellbeing, so the size of green spaces and sports fields at the university may act as proxies for some of the many protective factors that potentially exist in university environments. However, we are also using these data to gain a sense of whether the universities attended by respondents from the Next Steps Study included other students and staff who they might have viewed as being ‘like them’ – i.e. others with whom they could have felt more able to build strong connections.

In order to understand whether these students went to universities with ‘others like them’, we have used HESA data from the time the respondents were at university to determine the proportion of students and staff at their university who had similar characteristics to them. For example, if the respondent was a female commuter student at the time, we have calculated the proportion of female commuters who were also at their university. We will then examine whether going to a university with more individuals who have similar characteristics might act as a protective factor. Of course, going to a university with very different students might also be positive, so this is something we aim to explore with this exploratory approach too.

We would be interested to hear about other characteristics we should consider exploring, so please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @uniwelllives #StudentWellLives.

Modelling mental health inequalities within an intersectional framework

Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

By Kieran Balloo and Anesa Hosein

One of the unique angles of the #StudentWellLives Project is that we are using an intersectional approach to investigate mental health inequalities. Lawyer and scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, was the first person to come up with the term intersectionality. She wanted to show how discrimination in employment occurred for Black women – and that the discrimination did not occur because they were Black or because that they were women, but because they were Black women.

We, therefore, expect that when it comes to mental health, the inequalities may be occurring because of what Leslie McCall calls intercategorical complexity – i.e. depending on the multiple social categories that a young person may hold because of, for example, their sex, ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic class (SEC), and education background. We aim to look at interactions between multiple social categories (e.g. comparing Black male student experiences with white female non-student experiences).

However, in doing this we face a challenge; a large part of the literature on intersectionality is based on qualitative research, much of which subscribes to the anticategorical approach in which McCall explains that social life is seen as being too complicated to be boxed into discrete categories. Whilst we broadly agree with this argument, and that everyone is an individual, in large-scale quantitative datasets such as the Next Steps Study that we are using, patterns are sought about the population to inform policy. Thus, an intercategorical approach is the methodological compromise we need to make. We are also considering these categories in a similar way to Rita Dhamoon and Olena Hankivsky, who contend that these the social categories are really just proxies for systemic privilege and oppression, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism. Hence, through the intercategorical approach we aim to show that social inequalities are a result of structural power hierarchies that shape individuals’ experiences, and intersectionality captures the “numerous interlocking systems of privilege and oppression”, as suggested by Clare Evans and colleagues.

Traditionally, the intercategorical approach would involve an examination of the main effects (i.e. the social categories) and their interactions (i.e. the intersectionalities). We do, however, face some challenges if we use this approach. Firstly, we need to make sure that there are reasonable sample sizes in all of the combinations of social categories. Secondly, this can create some difficulties with interpretation because of the large number of interactions.

However, we may have found an alternative that can get around these challenges. Evans and colleagues recently published a very influential methodological paper about the use of the intercategorical approach in quantitative analyses. In their paper, they propose using multilevel modelling (also known as hierarchical linear modelling) to reflect the power hierarchies embedded in the social categories. The advantages of this approach are that the sample size becomes less of an issue, and the interpretation of the data across social categories can be more easily understood through the use of graphs.

We are still exploring this approach by Evans and colleagues, but we would be interested to hear from other researchers who have adopted a quantitative approach to intersectionality analyses, or those who might be interested in using this novel multilevel approach. Please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @uniwelllives #StudentWellLives.

Relevant Readings:

  • Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 139-167.
  • Dhamoon, R. K., & Hankivsky, O. (2011). Why the theory and practice of intersectionality matter to health research and policy. In O. Hankivsky (Ed.), Health inequities in Canada: Intersectional frameworks and practices (pp. 16–50). UBC Press.
  • Evans, C. R., Williams, D. R., Onnela, J. P., & Subramanian, S. V. (2018). A multilevel approach to modeling health inequalities at the intersection of multiple social identities. Social Science & Medicine203, 64-73.
  • McCall, L. (2005). The complexity of intersectionality. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society30(3), 1771-1800.

Differentiating between mental health and wellbeing


By Kieran Balloo

Currently, in the #StudentWellLives project we are grappling with how to define mental health and wellbeing. Often, the terms mental health and wellbeing are used interchangeably, but research suggests they should be viewed as being connected, but conceptually distinct (Keller, 2020). It might be useful to think of wellbeing as a broader concept that encompasses a range of factors experienced at an individual, community and national level.

Simply put, [wellbeing is] about ‘how we’re doing’ as individuals, communities and as a nation, and how sustainable that is for the future. It is sometimes referred to as social welfare or social value.

What Works Wellbeing (

Mental health refers to a full spectrum of experience ranging from good mental health to mental illness…. Good mental health means more than the absence of illness. It [is] a dynamic state of internal equilibrium in which an individual experiences regular enduring positive feelings, thoughts and behaviours, can respond appropriately to normal negative emotions and situations and is able to make a positive contribution to their community…. Mental illness [is] taken to mean a condition and experience, involving thoughts, feelings, symptoms and/or behaviours, that causes distress and reduces functioning, impacting negatively on an individual’s day to day experience, and which may receive or be eligible to receive a clinical diagnosis.

The University Mental Health Charter (

In the #StudentWellLives project, we believe the distinction is helpful because we will be analysing aspects of both wellbeing and mental health as separate constructs. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Measuring National Well-being programme defines individual wellbeing as representing how people feel about:

  • personal wellbeing
  • health
  • relationships
  • education and skills
  • what they do
  • where they live
  • personal finances
  • the economy
  • governance
  • the environment

Using this conceptualisation, aspects of mental health, such as anxiety and depression, could fall under ‘personal wellbeing’ and ‘health’. ‘Personal wellbeing’ also includes life satisfaction, life worthwhileness, and emotions. Other aspects of wellbeing that are likely to be relevant to our project include: ‘relationships’, which covers personal relationships and feelings of loneliness; ‘education and skills’, which covers educational achievement and human capital; and ‘what they do’, which includes work and leisure activities.

In the Next Steps data we are utilising, there are measures of life satisfaction, health, and relationships with others. There are also measures related to young people’s education and employment outcomes (e.g. job satisfaction), which can be seen as aspects of their wellbeing under the ONS definition. Instead of conflating the two terms, we will be able to see how different aspects of mental health and wellbeing are interrelated, which might be valuable when using the findings to identify how best to support differing student needs. For example, supporting students with their feelings of loneliness when they start university might not mean automatically sending them to student counselling, which might be better for dealing with more profound mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

We would be interested to hear about other benefits or disadvantages to separating the two concepts, so please leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @uniwelllives #StudentWellLives.

What environmental data should universities collect for student mental health and wellbeing?

Photo by Pixabay on

By Anesa Hosein

Over the last two months, we have been delving into the UK Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) publicly available datasets. And when I say, “we”, I mean Kieran. It is mind blowing how much data is available for each university. And it is such a rich dataset which researchers can use for any amount of secondary data analysis research.

In a recent research bid I was putting together for an Irish Higher Education context, I recognised the lack of data that is available for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in other countries in comparison to the UK. If we are to understand the university environment in different international contexts and how they impact on student wellbeing then we need governments to implement plans to collect sufficient and the right data for higher education.

What constitutes the appropriate/right data that HEIs and governments need to collect to understand student mental health and wellbeing is something that our project hopefully might be able to contribute to. We recognise that collecting this type of data requires a huge resource and infrastructure investment and hence we hope to provide clear guidelines in the future about what may be the best data to collect to understand how the university environment affects student mental health and wellbeing.

At the moment we are exploring from the HESA dataset, various cultural, social and built environment variables that contribute to the university environment, including investment in arts, proportion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and the size of green spaces and sport fields. We know from the work of WhatWorksWellbeing that the arts, a sense of belonging, and taking part in sports affect mental health and wellbeing. Hence we’re checking the extent to which these variables contribute to a university environment that supports mental health and wellbeing.

So, watch this space and if you can think of any variables that HESA should have for measuring mental health and wellbeing – let us know.

Project launch and start of phase 1

By Kieran Balloo

The Student Wellbeing & Life Outcomes Project launched at the beginning of July and we have got straight to work on the first phase of our four-phase project. As a secondary data analysis project, our main job at the moment involves preparing various data for analysis. During phase 1, which will last for the next few months, we will focus on preparing data to address the following research question:

  • What type of university environment works for having better life outcomes (particularly mental health and wellbeing) for graduates with different social characteristics?

Respondents’ university data from the Next Steps Study will be linked with university data held by the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) and the Office for Students (OfS), and with National Student Survey (NSS) results. Some of the university data will be used to classify universities based on their environment. For example, universities will be clustered based on their financial investment in, and access to, sports facilities, and their perceived levels of academic and personal support.

We will also be meeting with members of our advisory board during this phase to discuss our project plans and ensure our research will be relevant to our beneficiaries.