Protective Factors and Mental Health

March 17, 2020

If two children experience the same traumatic event, it is likely their response to the event will vary. This variation depends on the risk factors and protective factors present in their lives. For instance, if a teen were to experience or be exposed to violent or abusive event that was traumatic for them, not having someone to talk to about the event could be a mental health risk factor. Similarly, if the teen turned to their parents after the event and they were dismissive of the teen’s feelings or concerns, this could also be a mental health risk factor. To understand protective factors and how they impact mental health it is first important to understand risk factors and their impact on the mental health of teens and adolescents.

Mental Health Risk Factors

Risk factors are generally described as those situations that put an adolescent or teen at risk for not being able to cope with a situation in a healthy way. This inability to cope can lead to psychological disorders such as major depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. There are several examples of mental health risk factors. They can include:

  • Homelessness-having parents who are homeless and the teen experiencing living on the street or being separated from their family.
  • Mental illness or addiction in the family
  • Limited or no support from family members-this can also include dismissive or abusive responses from family members when a teen turns to them about a traumatic experience.
  • Involvement with drugs, alcohol or other substance use
  • Behavioral issues- this can include a history of aggression and an inability to control behavior.
  • Learning and cognitive delays-including social or cognitive deficits, development delays, poor academic performance and low IQ.
  • Social issues-social rejection by peers or societal rejection can be a strong risk factor for teens and adolescents.

There are other risk factors that can play a role in the development of mental illness. These include

  • Genetics: Research indicates genetics play a role in whether or not a teen may develop a psychological disorder. If there is a family history of mental health issues, there is a greater likelihood the teen may develop the same illness.
  • Physical: Some mental illness can be caused by certain deficiencies in brain development. The levels of neurotransmitters in the brain have a significant influence on one’s ability to focus, as well as control mood and levels of energy.
  • Environment: The environmental factors surrounding someone have also been known to impact the development of mental illness. For example, if a teen is commonly exposed to abuse, violence, drugs and addiction, it can contribute to psychological illness later on.

Protective Factors

As a parent or caregiver, it is valuable to be aware of the various mental health risk factors and how they can worsen a teen’s psychological illness. It is also important to be aware of how the protective factors can improve their situation. Protective factors are the opposite of risk factors. Protective factors are circumstances that can help protect teens by helping them manage their symptoms and potentially find meaning and purpose behind their experiences. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, protective factors are beset defined as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, or community (including peers and culture) level that is associated with a lower likelihood of problem outcomes or that reduces the negative impact of a risk factor on problem outcomes.”

Mental health protective factors, like risk factors are generally categorize as biophysical, psychological, social or spiritual. While there are many, many different protective factors, some of the more common are discussed below. These are the factors that should be utilized when a mental health risk is recognized. Additionally, if an adolescent or teen has these protective factors and can use them to regulate emotion or to cope with a traumatic event, there is a reduced likelihood of the event of emotional imbalance developing into a mental health concern or crisis.

Biophysical Protective Factors

Secure attachment as a child-children who experience secure and healthy attachment to a parental figure during infancy and childhood are less likely to experience the challenges related to risk factors. These challenges can include parental detachment, abuse or neglect as a child and traumatic or abusive living situations at home.

Healthy diet, exercise, and development-healthy diet and exercise are integral to healthy development. Adolescents and teens who get regular exercise and consume a diet of healthy, nutrient rich foods are more likely to be healthier. This is due to how diet and exercise impact physical and emotional development. Vitamins and minerals as part of a balanced diet will impact the development of various body systems including the skeletal, muscular and neurological systems including the brain.

Regular exercise can come in the form of individual routines or organized sports through school or clubs. Not only will these activities help an adolescent or teen to maintain physical health, but they can help to maintain emotional and social health as well. A primary risk factor for mental health concerns is social isolation or perceived social insignificance. When teens feel as though they don’t belong it can lead to self-isolation, depression and anxiety. Participation in group events such as athletics promotes belonging and “team” mentality.

Psychological Protective Factors

Reliable support and discipline from caregivers-a supportive and nurturing environment limits the amount of stress and anxiety felt by adolescents and teens during formative years. If going home to parents and caregivers is anxiety or stress producing it can reduce the development of vital coping mechanisms and increase the presence of risk factors such as poor self-regulation skills and challenges with aggression control.

Emotional self-regulation-the inability to self-regulate can lead to challenges from a young age. For infants this can mean excessive crying which can lead to frustration and in some of the worst cases, parental detachment. For older children it can lead to aggression and “lashing out” when the child or adolescent feels their needs are not being met and they lack the coping mechanisms to self-regulate their emotions. For teens lack of ability to self-regulate can lead to frustration and constant negative attention from teachers and peers at school. This constant negative attention can lead to depression and anxiety. It can also lead to problems at school including fights, skipping school, poor grades, suspensions and a general lack of caring about school or those at the school.

Positive self-regard Focus on making healthy food and beverage choices from all five food groups including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy to get the nutrients you need.

Social Protective Factors

Ability to make friends and get along with others- The ability to make friends and foster strong peer relationships is essential to mental health for adolescents and teens. As noted above, there are several mental health risk factors that center around strong and supportive social and family circles. For adolescents and teens who struggle with this, the world can feel like a very isolating and lonely place.

Supportive relationship with family-if an adolescent or teen is lacking in support or strong personal relationships with their immediate family unit this can be challenging to their mental health. If a teen opens up to a family member about an experience or event that caused trauma only to be met with disbelief or criticism, this can lead to mental health concerns. A strong family unit is one of the most essential protective factors for mental health in teens.

As previously noted, there are several other protective factors which can have significant impact in the mental health of adolescent and teens. Failure to develop these can open your teen up to negative experiences, trauma, social isolation and potential increased mental illness.

When to seek help

Depending on the struggles your adolescent or teen is facing around protective factors, treatment may be an option. Treatment around protective factors differs slightly from specific treatment for a diagnosed mental health condition.  Treatment for around the lack of or underdevelopment of protective factors centers around how to help an adolescent or teen strengthen their protective factors and develop the necessary coping mechanisms they need. There are various treatment modalities which focus on developing coping mechanisms and working with the protective factors your adolescent or teen already possesses to strengthen their mental health.

  • Multidimensional Family Therapy-One such treatment modality that is growing is popularity is multidimensional Family Therapy. Multidimensional Family Therapy is often conducted in an outpatient setting. This treatment was developed based on research around adolescent development and the risk and protective factors for adolescent mental health problems. Multidimensional Family Therapy has been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression, anxiety, delinquency and other mental health concerns or mental health gateways that impact adolescents and teens who are lacking in strong protective factors.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy- Cognitive behavioral therapy is another common treatment used when trying to help with the development of protective factors and coping mechanisms. Cognitive behavioral therapy strategies are also highly successful in treatment some of the mental health disorders that can develop out of underdeveloped protective factors such as post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anger, anxiety and general sadness. Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that mental health and psychological problems arise as a result of the way an individual views or interprets situations, thoughts and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques are designed to help an individual restructure how they see things and how they react to events or situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also used to help with the development of coping mechanisms and protective strategies for which a lack of could have led to certain mental health issues.
  • Individual or family outpatient counseling-several protective develop or fail to develop out of family relationships. In some cases, outpatient counseling that involves several members of the family (or caregivers) working through counseling along with the adolescent or teen may be beneficial. Of course, this requires consideration regarding the adolescent or teens experiences at home. If their mental health risk factors center around their life at home or experiences with parents (or caregivers), family therapy is not likely to be successful or comfortable. It is important to determine the source of risk factors before determining the proper course of treatment.

Group | Protective Factors | Hillcrest

All of the above treatment options can take place in outpatient settings which may be the most beneficial setting for some teens and their families. For others, an outpatient setting may be more challenging. This is especially true if the risk factors they are experiencing at home are significant and could be detrimental to their mental health even while undergoing treatment. For these adolescents and teens, a residential treatment program such as Hillcrest may be the most beneficial. At Hillcrest we will work with your adolescent or teen to determine what treatments will be the most beneficial. If a lack of protective factors has led to mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, we will work to address those as well as their underlying causes. In some cases, a residential program can offer the opportunity for stronger healing than outpatient programs.

For some teens, the need to recover away from home (or the source of their stress and anxiety) can made outpatient programs challenging and often unsuccessful. At a residential program, a teen is offered the opportunity to work with a trained team of staff including medical professionals, counselors and nutritionists. An additional benefit to residential treatment is the peer relationships that can develop during a teens stay at a center like Hillcrest. For many teens with protective factor deficiencies, social relationships also suffer. At Hillcrest, your teen will live and learn alongside other teens who are experiencing many of the same concerns and fears. These relationships can help your adolescent or teen during treatment and beyond as they work to integrate what they have learned during treatment into their day to day lives back at home.

If you are a parent who is watching your teen struggle with mental health issues as a result of challenges related to protective factors, reach out to us at Hillcrest. We can guide you through the intake process and help explain how our treatment program can help your teen and your family.