"Approach mental health more broadly than just young people who are sick according to the DSM"

The quality of relationships is closely related to young people's mental health, Chantie Luijten's PhD thesis shows.
Chantie Luijten

The quality of relationships is closely related to young people's mental health, Chantie Luijten's (Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management) dissertation shows. Her research identifies risk and protective factors of mental health. There are differences between boys and girls. For instance, a lot of time on social media appears to be a risk factor only for girls.

The mental health of adolescents has been deteriorating for years. Figures show that young people increasingly have anxiety or depressive symptoms and are less and less satisfied with their lives. COVID-19 reinforced this trend (see also on cbs.nl). Among girls, this decline is even stronger. Chantie Luijten's thesis focuses on better understanding the potential risk factors of adolescents' mental health. At the same time, the research maps which factors actually have a positive and protective effect on adolescents' mental health.

The quality of social relationships with parents, and friendships in particular, have been found to be closely related to adolescents' well-being and internalising problems (e.g. anxiety symptoms or depressive feelings). The quality of the relationship with the mother is found to be more important for well-being than the relationship with the father. Furthermore, there are some clear differences between boys and girls. Luijten: "My research shows that girls' well-being partly depends on how they rate themselves. That self-esteem, in turn, depends on the quality of their friendships. In boys, you did not see this connection. Friendships are important for boys' well-being too, but they do not determine how they view themselves."

Social media a risk factor for girls

Girls who are more active on social media score lower on their mental health. The PhD student sees that there is a lot of focus in society on the negative effects of social media, for example because it is said to make young people insecure. Interestingly, this appears to apply only to girls' mental health. "My research shows that more time on social media in boys is not a risk factor for their mental health," she says.

Luijten based her thesis on questionnaires among 1304 adolescents aged between 11 and 17. Repeated monitoring among this large sample provided interesting insights. Previous studies were mostly a snapshot or lumped all types of relationships together. "Because we measured more frequently, we could see that friendships in adolescence become increasingly important for mental health. We also saw that mental health was getting worse, similar to national trends."

Approach mental health more broadly

The PhD student finds it unfortunate that the discussion on mental health tends to focus on psychological symptoms. Thus, the focus is often on disorders such as anxiety and depression, while positive aspects such as adolescent wellbeing require equal attention. "Fortunately, you do see a turnaround now, for example in research on interventions. It is important not to focus only on adolescents who are ill according to the DSM, but rather to emphasise the overall functioning and life happiness of adolescents. Otherwise, it will remain symptom management."

According to Luijten, the study provides relevant tools for protecting and promoting mental health in young people. The findings also endorse the importance of better monitoring of girls. "We should certainly not forget boys, but the declining trend among girls is worrying. The good news is that social relationships with parents and friends can be protective. By investing in that as a society, we can contribute to better mental health."


More information

PhD defense

Chantie Luijten defends her PhD thesis 'Adolescent Mental Health from a Psychosocial Perspective: Well-Being, Internalising Problems, and Relationships with Parents and Friends' on Thursday 22 December 2022.

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C.C. Luijten will defend her PhD dissertation on Thursday 22 December 2022
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