Group identifications reduce mental health problems in teenagers

28th August, 2015

Teenagers who fail to identify with their family, school and friends are more than four times likely to suffer mental health problems as peers who interact positively with these social groups, according to research from the University of Dundee.

The research team, led by Psychology PhD student Kirsty Miller, surveyed more than 1000 high school pupils from the Fife area. The results showed that group identification protects against psychological disturbance and that levels of identification with family, school and friendship groups predicts symptoms of mental ill-health amongst teenagers.

The paper, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, is one of the first to look at adolescent mental health from the perspective of social identity. The researchers asked participants aged 13-17 to rate the ties they felt to the three groups. The more groups they strongly identified with, the less likely they were to have experienced mental health problems.

Of those who recorded 0 strong ties, 71 per cent said they had encountered mental ill-health while the figure fell to just 17 per cent for those who strongly identified with their family, school and friendship group. In particular, the team found that identification with their school was the strongest predictor of psychological wellbeing.

“The odds of reporting psychiatric disturbance decrease with each group identification,” said Kirsty. “Previous studies have shown that identification with social groups is positively associated with adult mental wellbeing, with multiple group identifications being particularly beneficial, and this shows the same is true of adolescents.

“Higher identification with each group predicted better mental health. We believe our findings have implications for the prevention and treatment of mental problems, offering an alternative to traditional ways of viewing mental illness in adolescence and beyond. It is important to make the distinction between merely being a member of a group and actually identifying with it. It is this sense of belonging and commonality that appears to be crucial for mental health.”

The Scottish Government has stressed the urgent need to address mental health problems in young people and the findings are particularly relevant for schools given the importance of pupils identifying with them and the health and wellbeing component of Curriculum for Excellence.

The paper also comes at a time when public spending is coming under increasing pressure and the research offers the potential to re-evaluate the way teenage mental health is approached in this country.

Kirsty and her colleagues are working with teachers, other education professionals and charities keen to explore how the social identity technique can improve adolescent wellbeing. She is also working with a team of educational psychologists to develop an intervention for school pupils based on the findings.

University of Dundee News

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