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The Top Protective Factors for Mental Health in Adolescence

protective factors for mental illness

As parents, we want to protect our children from harm. We want to keep them safe. This means protecting their physical well-being as well as their emotional and mental health. 

While physical health is something that’s more easily seen and understood, some parents question whether they are doing enough to safeguard their children’s mental health. Mental illnesses often stay silent and go unnoticed, especially in the early years. But with mental health disorders on the rise, it’s important for parents to understand the potential for issues like depression and anxiety. And it’s important to take steps to try and prevent them.

It’s an unfortunate reality that close to half (49.5%) of adolescents have experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. And some people, inherently, are at greater risk of developing a mental illness than others. Risk factors like family history of mental illness, exposure to trauma, and severe poverty are common contributors. However, it’s important for parents to know that there are also protective factors that can reduce one’s risk of mental illness (even when risk factors are present).

Protective factors, as explained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes—in this case, mental illness. In other words, protective factors help to reduce the risk of developing mental health disorders. When protective factors are introduced and encouraged in early life, they are more likely to have a positive impact on a person’s health long-term.

Common Protective Factors for Mental Health

Protective factors may be biological or psychological, or at the environmental or family level. Below we explore common examples of protective factors for mental health, spanning each of these categories cited by a recent Surgeon General Report.

Individual Protective Factors for Mental Illness:

  • Positive development. The person has had positive experiences in their development, is generally healthy, and has a positive outlook regarding how they look and feel. 
  • Healthy habits. The child has also established healthy habits contributing to this, including healthy sleep patterns, regular exercise, and good nutrition. These factors have been proven to have a positive impact on a person’s mental health.
  • Good self-esteem. The child is also confident, self-aware, and/or happy with who they are or who they will become. Self-esteem is not always easy for teens and children, but can lead them to establish more positive relationships with peers and contribute to better mental health.
  • Ability to manage and regulate emotions. Youth with a level temperament and good emotional skills, including knowing how to cope with difficulties and how to exhibit self-control, are less likely to experience mental illness.
  • Connectedness with peers. Young people who are engaged and connected with others, particularly those of the same age, are more likely to see positive mental health benefits. Youth are inherently social beings, and positive friendships can be essential to their mental well-being.

Family-Focused Protective Factors:

  • Stable, well-structured home life. When a young person has a stable home life, with boundaries and structure established, they are more likely to find mental stability as well. Consistency in the home is an important element of this, as children who experience predictability, rules, clear expectations, and regular monitoring are likely to see positive benefits long-term.
  • Supportive relationships with family members. Supportive parenting and relationships with other family members in the home is equally important to a young person’s mental health. Parents have an incredible ability to influence how their child makes decisions and views life. Parents who support, encourage, and nurture their children are positioning youth for the best success long-term.

Protective Factors in Other Environments (School, Neighborhood, Society):

  • Mentors in the community. When children and teenagers have connections with other, caring adults outside of their home environment, this is also a wonderful protective factor for mental health. Mentors might include a counselor, church leader, school administrator, neighborhood advocate, or other respected adult figure in their community. Ultimately, this is a person they can look up to and learn from; someone who cares about the child’s well-being and success.
  • Academic achievement. Youth who excel in school, or who feel at ease in the classroom and with school assignments, are more likely to experience positive mental health benefits. 
  • Opportunity and support in pursuing interests. Young people who are encouraged to pursue their interests and talents are also likely to benefit mentally. Those who are given the opportunity to pursue these interests, whether it’s on the basketball court or in a local arts center, are likely to find more meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • Engagement within the community, school, and/or neighborhood. Youth who feel connected to their larger environments, whether that’s at school or in their town, are also likely to see positive mental health benefits. They may engage with local athletics, cultural organizations, religious groups, school activities, and more. This encourages even more positive relationships, which are essential to mental health. As the National Institute of Health explains, “A stable, healthy and committed network of relationships is highly protective in the presence of mental health conditions.”
  • Physical and psychological safety. At an even broader level, it’s important for children to feel safe and secure, both physically and emotionally, in their environments: at home, at school, in their community, and in the greater world. Youth who feel like they have access to safe and secure environments, or supportive people they can call on during critical times, are more likely to feel mentally secure.

What to Know About Protective Factors for Mental Health

Protective factors, whether at the individual, family, or environmental level, are essential for reducing a child’s risk of mental illness. For example, children who have a positive outlook on life, and who have positive relationships with others, are less likely to experience social isolation (which is a risk factor for mental illness). 

At the same time, protective factors can also reduce the impact of existent risk factors. For example, a stable home life and positive relationships with parents can give young people a stronger ability to cope with difficult emotions and situations, which is essential for staying healthy as their brains develop and grow.

During childhood and adolescence, the brain is developing rapidly. These are crucial periods for development, and therefore crucial times to introduce the supportive, protective factors that encourage positive mental health. 

As the World Health Organization (WHO) explains: “Adolescence is a crucial period for developing social and emotional habits important for mental well-being. These include adopting healthy sleep patterns; exercising regularly; developing coping, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills; and learning to manage emotions. Protective and supportive environments in the family, at school and in the wider community are important.”

As a parent, know that you have the power to make an impact. There are certain steps you can take to mitigate the risk of mental illness and to support your growing child or teen. 

If you have concerns about an existing and underlying mental illness, do not panic. There are still steps you can take to keep your child safe and to mitigate the symptoms associated with that disorder. Most importantly, those steps involve seeking the help of a professional mental health treatment provider. The right treatment provider will be experienced with the unique experiences of adolescents and young adults facing mental health issues, and will offer tailored treatment plans to support your loved one.

Interested in learning where to start? Contact Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn about our mental health treatment programs for teens and young adults.