Risk and Protective Factors for Youth Mental Health

A webpage at Youth.Gov displays a chart of the risk and protective factors for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders of adolescents.

Risk and protective factors are displayed within three domains: individual, family and school/neighborhood/community.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the chart was the significantly greater number of risk factors for mental health problems among youth than protective factors.

Risk factors seem to get much more attention in our society when it comes to mental health and substance use issues than protective factors.

In this article, we’ll look at the protective factors for promoting mental, emotional, and behavioral health among adolescents.

Protective factors represent a more positive viewpoint and include those things we want youth to increase rather than avoid.

In my experience, it is easier to increase something, especially in one’s personal life, than to prevent or take something away. 

Think, for example, how easy it is to eat one more piece or serving of fruit or vegetables a day compared to the effort needed to stop eating snack foods.

The youth mental health protective factors listed in the Youth.Gov chart by domain are shown below.

Individual protective factors include:

  • Positive physical development
  • Academic achievement/intellectual development
  • High self-esteem
  • Emotional self-regulation
  • Good coping skills and problem-solving skills
  • Engagement and connections in two or more of the following contexts: school, with peers, in athletics, employment, religion, culture

Family protective factors include:

  • Family provides structure, limits, rules, monitoring, and predictability
  • Supportive relationships with family members
  • Clear expectations for behavior and values

School, Neighborhood and Community protective factors include:

  • Presence of mentors and support for development of skills and interests
  • Opportunities for engagement within school and community
  • Positive norms
  • Clear expectations for behavior
  • Physical and psychological safety

One emerging element associated with mental health that cuts across various of these protective factors is the lifestyle behaviors of youth.

Research shows that lifestyle behaviors, including physical activity, healthy nutrition, and sleep (along with avoiding alcohol and drug use) are associated with improved youth mental health.

Improving the lifestyle behaviors of youth would likely enhance most of the individual mental health protective factors, as well as some of the family and school and community protective factors, leading to increased mental health of adolescents.

Interventions that simultaneously target multiple lifestyle behaviors, specifically physical activity, healthy eating, sleep and avoiding substance use are therefor likely to address multiple protective and risk factors for improving youth mental health and overall wellbeing. 

The good news is that there are already evidence-based lifestyle behavior programs that have been shown to prevent substance use and improve health-promoting behaviors among youth and young adults.

These integrated Prevention Plus Wellness programs hold promise for protecting and improving the mental, emotional, and behavioral health of young people across the US.

View the Youth.Gov risk and protective chart: https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/risk-and-protective-factors-youth

Learn more about Prevention Plus Wellness interventions: https://preventionpluswellness.com

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