Unlocking qualitative data in mental health research

11 Apr 2024
diary notebook with a pen

Qualitative diary methods have great potential for mental health research. They offer unique insight into how individual’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours change over time, and afford participants a sense of control over when and how they contribute to the research. With advancements in technology, digital data collection has become more cost effective, efficient and convenient. This gives an exciting opportunity to harness rich data from qualitative diary methods to better understand mental health. QUAHRC Alumna Cate McCombie and Director Vanessa Lawrence share their insights here.

This blog was originally published here.

Qualitative diary methods (QDM) are still an emerging method in mental health research, and when planning our own study, we found little guidance around how to use this method effectively while prioritising participants in the research. We undertook a scoping review, published in European Psychologist, to identify how QDM are being used, examine key benefits and challenges to using them, and gain an understanding of the key decisions and considerations needed when planning QDM mental health research. Our aim was to produce an easy-to-use checklist of key considerations when using this method to support future researchers using qualitative diaries and inspire use of this method.

Here are the key considerations we identified for using QDM: 

Determining suitability of QDM

  • Research Aims: Consider the continuum of QDM designs and their suitability for your research objectives, whether for short-term recording of immediate experiences or long-term data collection that tracks in-depth experiences over time.
  • Suitability for Participants: Assess whether diary methods are appropriate and feasible for your participants. Consider how they could support people with mental health difficulties to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and potential benefits like reflection and control over their contributions.
  • Ethical Considerations: Recognise and navigate specific ethical issues related to diary data collection, including privacy, safeguarding disclosures, literacy levels, and researcher-participant dynamics.

Considerations for a QDM study

  • Diary Format: Consider different diary formats (e.g., written, audio, photo, video) based on research questions, participant preferences, and ethical considerations.
  • Diary Administration: Choose suitable methods for diary completion and submission, such as paper, email, app, or web diaries. Consider factors like familiarity, convenience, and privacy of each method for participants.
  • Diary Intervals: Determine the frequency of diary entries based on what is being investigated and the desired level of detail and immediacy of data. Daily entries are usually only kept for a short period of time. Participants can also record a diary entry whenever an event of interest occurs.
  • Diary Time Period: Decide on the duration of diary-keeping, depending on what is being explored. For example, intervention evaluation studies tend to involve keeping diaries for the time span of the intervention only.
  • Sample Size: Consider the appropriate sample size for your study, balancing methodological requirements and research objectives with practical constraints and participant preferences.
  • Diary Structure and Guidance: Provide clear guidance and prompts for diary entries while allowing participants control over what they record to facilitate open and unconstrained data collection.
  • Additional Data Collection Methods: Explore using diaries alongside other data collection methods (e.g., interviews, questionnaires, focus groups) to complement insights, considering the strengths of each approach.

Approaches to analysing QDM data

  • Analysis Method: Choose an appropriate analysis approach (e.g., Content Analysis, Thematic Analysis) that aligns with research objectives and captures the nuances of diary data over time.
  • Challenges of QDMs: Be aware of potential challenges related to participant engagement over time, analysis limitations, and participant burden and mitigate them where possible.
  • Strengths of QDMs: Recognise the rich insights, captured in real time, over time, increased participant awareness, and enhanced trustworthiness of findings that qualitative diary methods can offer, particularly when used alongside other data collection methods.

By considering these tips, researchers can effectively plan, conduct, and analyse qualitative diary studies while addressing ethical considerations, maximising participant engagement, and generating valuable insights into participants' experiences.

During the review, we found marked inconsistencies in the reporting and use of QDM, which sometimes made it hard to evaluate how rigorous the research was, and how much we could trust the findings. This may reflect some of the challenges researchers face in developing new methods, as they grapple with questions around how to do the research, and what to report when journal word limits often restrict how much methodology can be reported in qualitative research articles.

Our review provides a succinct overview of what to consider and report when doing qualitative diary research in mental health, and how to hold issues of participant engagement and empowerment in mind while doing so. We hope this provides a framework within which researchers can consider their research, justify decision making, and ensure their research is accessible to the intended participants and supports engagement.