Exploring Psychological Well-being in College Students: Examining the Role of Sexual Orientation in Development



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This study explored the role that sexual orientation played in psychological well-being amongst college undergraduates. An increasing amount of research has examined the mental health and stressors of college students and how well-being is affected (Wood, 2012; Keyes, Eisenberg, Perry, Dube, Kroenke & Dhingra, 2011). In addition, research has shown that lesbians, gays and bisexuals (LGB) are likely to report lower well-being and higher rates of mental health issues (Gates, 2014; McLauglin, Hatzenbuehler, Xuan & Conron, 2012; Oswalt & Wyatt, 2011). The study sought to merge these contexts to understand how well-being is affected by someone identifying as heterosexual or LGB while in college. This merger should clarify some of the gaps of the two previous literature bodies – and provide administrators a better understanding of the well-being of LGB college students. This study was guided by four research questions:

  1. Does psychological well-being differ between gay, lesbian and bisexual (LGB) identified college students and heterosexual (male and female) identified college students?
  2. How may psychological well-being differ among gay and bisexual men and lesbian and bisexual women in college communities?
  3. How applicable and useful is the Ryff Scale of Psychological Well-being (RPWB) for LGB college students?
  4. What sort of stressors do LGBs face while in college? A mixed methods design was used to examine these research questions. A quantitative approach was used for the first two research questions. The Ryff Scale of Psychological Well-being (RPWB) was given to participants to measure psychological well-being (Ryff, 1989). Based on the positivist psychology movement, the RPWB measured six operationalized dimensions of well-being: self-acceptance, positive relations with other people, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth. On the RPWB, participants received an overall score for well-being as well as a score for each of the six dimensions. On research question one, results indicated that there was not a significant difference found in the overall score on the RPWB between LGB college students and heterosexual male and female college students. When comparing across the six dimensions of RPWB, it was found that LGB participants scored higher than heterosexual males on the personal growth subscale. For research question two, there was no significant difference found among gay and bisexual males and lesbian and bisexual females on the overall score or six subscales of the RPWB. The second part of the study used qualitative observation through semi-structured focus groups to answer the third and fourth research questions. Data analysis was informed by two qualitative methods: Braun and Clarke (2006) and Carspecken (1996). The findings indicated that LGB students employed an “open” – but not too open mentality around their orientation, choosing to take on or discard part of their identity depending on the situation. Participants emphasized self-preservation strategies in an effort to protect their own well-being in uncomfortable social, academic or professional arenas. Students often found themselves educating their family, friends and professional networks – which based on the relationship, could either be embraced or cause frustration. Finally, participants felt their struggle with their sexual orientation might have translated into a source of strength and personal development that heterosexuals do not experience. Resources in higher education must be positioned to provide programs and services that are welcoming and inclusive of LGB people. As the literature will show, LGB participants faced stigma, misinformation, as well as homophobia and biphobia. However, findings from this study indicate that the collegiate experience may prove useful in the development of LGB students – providing safer environments, tight-knit social relationships, and readily available professional support.



Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB), Colleges