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Optimal Functioning in University Students with a Mental Illness: A Mixed-Method Exploration of Resilience and Well-Being

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Title: Optimal Functioning in University Students with a Mental Illness: A Mixed-Method Exploration of Resilience and Well-Being
Author: Bowers, Hayley
Department: Department of Psychology
Program: Psychology
Advisor: Lumley, Margaret
Abstract: Mental illness affects 1 in 5 individuals throughout their lifetime with the majority of mental illnesses emerging between the ages of 17 to 25 years of age (World Health Organization, 2001). Mental illness can be debilitating for an individual of any age but for those within this age group there are a number of developmental factors that can contribute to the severity and outcome of a mental health concern. I aimed to better understand university students’ lived experience with a mental illness on campus. A sequential transformative mixed-method design was employed to first, in Study 1, give voice to these students’ lived experience with a mental illness at university including the ways mental illness impacts the university experience and the factors that contribute to them overcoming challenges. In Study 2, I aimed to explore the extent to which the factors identified by students in Study 1 contributed to positive functioning for a broader sample of students with a mental illness. A total of 26 students participated in Study 1, all of whom were registered with student accessibility services (SAS) due to a mental illness diagnosis. A total of 170 students who self-identified as having a mental illness, participated in Study 2. Results indicated that the relationship between mental illness and student life is complex and bidirectional: (1) students’ mental illness affects their ability to engage and remain in school; (2) students’ mental illness affects their social relationships; and (3) the availability and accessibility of resources on campus affects their mental illness. Despite these challenges, students with a mental illness on campus were able to function on campus due to a number of different factors. Specifically, participants identified ten factors most important to their overall well-being at university: (1) connection to others; (2) sleep/health; (3) purpose/meaning/goals; (4) professional support; (5) compassion to self and others; (6) exercise; (7) hobbies; (8) flexibility; (9) optimism; and (10) faith/religion. Thematic analysis revealed six key individual characteristics in overcoming challenges and promoting well-being for these students: (1) openness to change; (2) kind to self; (3) hope for the future; (4) gratitude in the context of suffering; (5) setting goals and following through; and (6) persistence. Results of Study 2 revealed that each of these characteristics identified in Study 1 were quantitatively associated with some combination of four aspects of positive functioning (i.e., resilience, student engagement, happiness, life satisfaction) for a larger sample of students with a mental illness. By shifting from a deficit-oriented approach to understanding mental illness, findings contribute to the growing field of positive clinical psychology. Upon replication, findings here also highlight areas potentially worthy of pursuit in the attempt to prevent psychopathology and promote well-being for a growing proportion of students with mental illness, underscoring the value of mental health resources, psychoeducation, and knowledge translation in the campus context.
Date: 2021-09-10
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