A national study following more than 12,000 people from adolescence to adulthood showed that positive and caring relationships in the teenage years make a lasting impact on mental health. Warm relationships with parents, friends and teachers are highly effective safeguards against depressive symptoms later in life, as is educational achievement. Teenage romantic relationships, pregnancy and multiple sex partners pose modest risks, while alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use reveal mixed associations.
The study, “Adolescent Context and Depressive Symptom Trajectories in a National Sample: Ages 13 to 34,” is published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the research examines 12,248 respondents initially recruited during high school in 1994-95.
“Previous research on depressive symptoms looked at many of the same environmental factors, such as family and peer relationships, school experience, religious activity, delinquent behaviors, drug use and sexual activity, but not commonly all at once,” said lead author Blake Victor Kent, assistant professor of sociology at Westmont College and research associate at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We wanted to get as complete a picture of the adolescent environment as possible. The data allowed us to do that.”
The researchers, including co-author Matt Bradshaw, research professor of sociology at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, found that some variables emerged as consistently useful in understanding depressive symptoms over time. “One was the role of parents, even after controlling for all the other variables,” said Bradshaw, who earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. “We specifically wanted to know if there was a difference relative to the quality — as well as the presence or absence — of the parental relationship.”
To test this, the authors classified parent-child relationships as characterized by low attachment, high attachment or no attachment. “We expected to find that a poor attachment was worse in terms of mental health than a high attachment, and that was true. But we also found something a little surprising,” said Kent, who earned a doctorate in sociology from Baylor University. “When it comes to fathers, we found that having a poor attachment was worse in terms of mental health than having no attachment at all. That doesn’t mean as soon as you have a relational challenge with your dad you walk away, but it is certainly notable.”
The study is also unique in its use of a specific type of analysis, group-based trajectory modeling. “Basically, we created trajectory curves over a 20-year period and were able to classify how many people fit onto each one of those curves,” Kent said. “About 75 percent of people report no significant experiences of depression, and among the rest, some experience symptoms more heavily in the teenage years, some in their 20s, and others in their 30s.”
This allowed Kent and Bradshaw to identify when various associations seemed most relevant. For example, they found that a poor attachment with the mother is associated with depressive symptoms during the teens and 20s, but not in the 30s. “That may reflect how the relationships, which people use to get needs met, shift over time,” Bradshaw said.
In addition to the relational components, there were other compelling findings. “During the 20s substance use has a beneficial association with depressive symptoms. This is the opposite of the teenage years,” Kent said. “Adolescents often use substances as a form of rebellion, but adults may be more poised to engage in moderate alcohol or marijuana use to successfully cope with other sources of distress. There was also a gendered pattern, showing that women are likely to use substances in a healthier way.”
Likewise, teen pregnancy is associated with depressive symptoms in the 30s, but not the teenage years. The authors suggest this could be related to cumulative disadvantage, a perspective highlighting how missed opportunities tend to snowball over time, including lower educational attainment and decreased earnings.
The study also addresses religion and spirituality. “In prior work, religious service attendance has been associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms, but we find this association is strongest during the 30s,” Kent said. “The emergence of this protective factor in the mid-30s may relate to changing social networks. Built-in networks for social support thin after the formal education years and participation in civic organizations is likewise in decline. This leaves congregations as likely locations of support in the 30s and beyond.”