Why Not Me? Students’ Identity, Community Belonging and Wellbeing in Academic Schools

Michael Fay


Academic identity is a sense of ‘authenticity’ and ‘success’. It is also grounded in interactions between an individual and a community. Students with a positive academic identity may feel part of a community, may engage more with their course because of this identity, be more likely to perform well and experience positive mental health. This could lead to an upward spiral. In contrast, students with a poor academic identity may feel they do not belong to a community, may be disengaged from their course, perform poorly and experience poor mental health in a downward spiral. Literature suggests it is ‘virtually impossible’ to understand the aetiology of mental health without considering identity issues. However, mental health is often seen as specific to individuals. Therefore causes and solutions are often explored at the individual level. We argue that social concerns such as academic identity and sense of community may be a key underexplored factor at play.

This paper considers findings from online focus groups exploring the intersection between academic identity and mental wellbeing in undergraduate law and psychology students at Keele. We decided to explore our research questions in samples of both law and psychology students because while law students generally have a similar career pathway in mind, psychology students have a more diverse range of career paths. It may be that the stronger career pathway in law improves academic identity and mental health, or it may be that the increased competition between students for a similar range of jobs may have a negative effect. We will also discuss the implications of our findings, for example around how interventions to promote positive mental wellbeing, focussing on academic identity, may lead to positive changes in the community and therefore benefits for all rather than simply targeting those who are at risk.