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WISAR Student Mental Health and Wellbeing on the Island of Ireland

The U-WELL project aims to provide a better understanding of student mental health and to identify early intervention strategies. A large-scale longitudinal survey to examine student mental health will be conducted in colleges across the Island of Ireland. U-WELL will help identify risk and protective factors for psychological problems prior to starting college through the promotion and exploration of concepts to improve student transition to third level education.


In 2023, Dr Margaret McLafferty, was awarded €559,648.92 through the SFI-IRC Pathway programme to conduct work in the area of Student Mental Health and Wellbeing on the Island of Ireland. This four-year project, known as U-WELL, will allow the research team to continue their important work, building on the existing cross-border collaboration between ATU-Donegal and Ulster University. The mentor for the project is Dr Louise McBride, ATU and the co-investigators are Dr Elaine Murray and Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Ulster University. The PhD researcher for the project is James Sweeney, ATU.


Researchers from ATU-Donegal and Ulster University have collaborated on a number of important projects related to student mental health and wellbeing in recent years. In 2019, the Student Psychological Intervention Trial (SPIT), funded by CHITIN, commenced in both institutions. Phase 1 of SPIT involved a large-scale longitudinal student mental health survey, conducted as part of the World Mental Health International College Student Initiative (WMH-ICS). Students were surveyed when they commenced college and follow up surveys were conducted at the start of their 2nd and 3rd year at college and also at the end of their 3rd year. Phase 2 of SPIT was a randomised controlled trial to test the efficacy of an online, CBT based, guided, intervention for students experiencing mild to moderate levels of depression and/or anxiety. A number of peer reviewed papers have been published detailing the findings from this project.

One of the findings from SPIT was that students who screened for probable ADHD were more likely to have a range of mental health problems and reported very high rates of suicidal behaviour. An application was submitted to the North South Research Programme for funding to conduct further research and develop a wellbeing programme to help students living with ADHD. The Irish Student Wellbeing and ADHD project (I-SWAP) also explored the transition to third level education for students living with ADHD.

The U-WELL project will build on the findings from these previous research projects and aims to take an all-island approach to address the needs of students in higher education.

Overall aims:

1. Developing, promoting and co-ordinating a large-scale, standardised, longitudinal wellbeing study across a wide range of colleges on the Island of Ireland.

2. Examining how parent-child relationships in the years prior to commencing college impact on mental health and the transition to higher-level education.

3. Exploring how schools and colleges help prepare students for the transition to third level education.

4. Evaluating if variations in the prevalence rates of mental health disorders and suicidal behaviour revealed in previous studies are related to the different education systems, and the support provided to secondary school students as they transition to college, on either side of the Irish border.

The objectives of the project include:

  • Setting up a dedicated network for those with an interest in student mental health on the Island of Ireland which will lead to collaborative work in relation to student wellbeing.
  • Co-developing open access resources which can be shared with colleges interested in conducting longitudinal surveys among their students in relation to mental health and wellbeing which will generate a large-scale evidence-based data set.
  • Conducting a pilot study to trial the standardised resources.
  • Collating and analysing data from the student wellbeing surveys, writing papers and presenting the findings which may result in collaborative grant applications in the future.
  • Conducting a survey with parents of second level students, and students themselves, to ascertain how the parent’s behaviour towards their child can impact on the young person’s mental health and wellbeing and ability to cope with stressors, with a particular focus on the transition to third level education. The findings may lead to the development of resilience building programmes for adolescents.
  • Surveying this cohort of students again if/when they start college and once more at the end of their first year to monitor their wellbeing during the transition to third level education. This may help identify any issues early in the time at college.
  • Collecting saliva samples to identify biological risk factors for psychological problems.
  • Conducting a survey and focus groups/interviews with students on both sides of the Irish border, to ascertain how they may be best prepared/supported for the transition to college.
  • Carrying out a scoping exercise to ascertain how different second-level education systems and support may impact on student’s mental health and transition to college.

If you would like more information about the project, please contact:
Dr Margaret McLafferty
Email: margaret.mclafferty@atu.ie
Follow us: @U_WELL_ie

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