Teens’ coping strategies to protect mental health

What psychological strengths do adolescents who live under difficult circumstances in low-income communities draw on to help them cope with stress, fear and anxiety?

This is one of the questions that Dr Carmen Späth tried to answer in her recent doctoral study in Psychology at Stellenbosch University.

Dr Späth, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in social and behavioural sciences at the University of Cape Town, says many young people who live in these communities often experience various stressors, including violence, which have an impact on their mental health.

She points to previous studies which have shown that living in socio-economically adverse communities contributes to the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“It is, therefore, important to gain an understanding of how psychological strengths mediate the impact of psychological stress (i.e. depressive symptoms or anxiety symptoms) on the overall mental health of adolescents, as it could indicate those psychological strengths that may be pivotal to interventions targeting the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental illness in vulnerable adolescents,” she says.

“Psychological strengths are those factors (both within and outside ourselves) that may serve to protect us from experiencing emotional difficulties and promote our mental health.”

As part of her study, Dr Späth identified seven schools in low-income communities in the Cape Metropole to determine how psychological strengths help adolescents cope with psychological stress and the impact that these strengths have on their overall mental health.

She asked a number of adolescents to complete questionnaires and 347 adolescents’ (aged 12 to 21 years) responses were included in the study.

She also conducted follow-up individual interviews with 14 of these adolescents. In this way, she was able to gain insight into their psychological stress, levels of coping and psychological strengths as well as their subjective experience.

“I found that self-esteem, perceived social support and resilience may be psychological strengths these adolescents used to cope with their daily realities. In addition, social support networks (parents, siblings, friends, teachers and neighbours) and coping by means of actively trying to solve a problem, were also factors that had a positive impact on the adolescents,” says Dr Späth.

“These psychological strengths and coping strategies may have protected the mental health of adolescents who experience psychological stress (i.e. depressive symptoms and anxiety).

“We should therefore consider these psychological strengths and coping strategies as vital to intervention studies that target the promotion of mental health in adolescents or the prevention of mental illness in adolescents who display symptoms of psychological stress.”

Dr Späth adds that interventions should focus on developing or amplifying self-esteem, increasing perceptions of social support through social support-building strategies as well as increasing levels of resilience.

She says although they live in communities plagued by violence, some adolescents feel connected to specific community members such as their neighbours who they could turn to for advice on certain matters.

“It is essential for interventions to be focused on aiding adolescents in identifying and solidifying the social relationships that may be beneficial to them when they are in need.”

Dr Späth points out that in addition to violence, in particular gang violence, adolescents regarded peer relationships as a risk factor for their mental health.

“Some experienced mocking, teasing and physical abuse from peers that manifested in fear and anxiety.

“Some adolescents also seemed to experience fears about possibly failing a grade at school because this may prevent them from succeeding and transforming their socio-economic circumstances.”

Dr Späth adds that coping by means of not thinking about a problem also emerged as a risk factor for the mental health of adolescents as it was not associated with the active management of psychological stress symptoms.

She hopes that her research will inform studies that focus on interventions to promote mental health and develop psychological strengths.