Adolescence is a time period where the majority of mental health problems emerge. Understanding what factors may help prevent such problems in adolescence is therefore incredibly important. The family environment in childhood is an important predictor of adolescent mental health, where negative family experiences, such as emotional abuse and neglect are strong predictors of mental health problems. However, some children who experience a negative family environment in childhood cope better than expected later in life. These individuals can be described as showing ‘resilience’. Studying the factors that contribute to resilience is critical for development of interventions that can improve the psychological well-being of those adolescents who have experienced negative family events in early life.
New research in press at Psychological Medicine, suggests that friendship support may be particularly important in promoting mental health resilience in adolescence. The research team, led by Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen of the Department of Psychiatry, investigated whether family support and/or friendships in adolescence predicted mental health resilience. The team used data from 2000 adolescents between the ages of 14 and 24 years who were part of the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network study. NSPN is a Wellcome trust funded collaboration between researchers at University College London and the University of Cambridge.
As part of the NSPN study, adolescents completed self-report questionnaires that measured their friendships, family support, level of psychosocial functioning (including psychiatric symptoms, personality traits and psychological wellbeing) and positive and negative experiences in the family environment in childhood (using parenting style questionnaires). Participants completed all of the questionnaires twice, one year apart.
The study showed that negative family experiences were associated with poorer adolescent mental health functioning. Resilient functioning was determined by calculating how much better, or worse, individuals current mental health was than expected, given their childhood family experiences (see Figure). Using this method, adolescents with average mental health functioning score high on resilience if they had very negative childhood family experiences, or low on resilience if they had more positive childhood family experiences.
Analyses were then carried out to determine whether friendships and family support were associated with greater mental health resilience at the same time point and one year later. The team found that although friendships and family support predicted greater current mental health resilience, only adolescent friendships predicted resilience one year later. These findings highlight the particular importance of friendships with peers during adolescence in prompting psychological health. The authors suggest that friendships may improve resilience by increasing positive thoughts about oneself, offering companionship, increasing positive experiences, or reducing stress, all of which have been shown to reduce risk of poor mental health.
First author Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen said ‘We already knew that the peer environment is increasingly important in adolescence, adolescents become much more focused on their peers and spend more time with their friends. Our research suggests that supportive friendships in adolescence are crucial for mental health resilience’
The NSPN sample is a healthy population sample, and only few adolescents had experienced extremely negative childhood experiences, so it remains to be seen whether friendships similarly improve resilience in adolescents who have experienced severe abuse or neglect. Nonetheless these findings suggest that interventions to promote supportive friendships during adolescence offer promise for improving psychological well-being in the population at large.
Dr. van Harmelen is funded by a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from The Royal Society.
Written by Sarah Griffiths