Life circumstances and adolescent mental health: Perceptions, associations and a gender analysis

Detta är en avhandling från Sundsvall : Mid Sweden University

Sammanfattning: Despite a well-documented gender pattern of adolescent mental health, public health research investigating possible influencing factors from a gender-theoretical approach is scarce. This study aimed to explore what factors and circumstances are related to adolescent mental health and to apply a gender analysis to the findings in order to improve the understanding of the relationships between life circumstances and the gendered patterning of mental health among young people. The study population was 16-19-year-old Swedish students and data was collected by means of focus groups (N=29) and self-administered questionnaires (N=1,663, 78.3% response rate) in school settings. Mental health problems were defined in a broad sense including the adolescents’ own understandings, perceived stress, psychological distress and deliberate self-harm. The mental health problems of perceived stress, psychological distress and deliberate self-harm were twice as common among girls as boys. The findings suggest that adolescent mental health is associated with the life circumstances of social relationships, demands and responsibility taking and experiences of violence and harassment.  Supportive relationships with friends, family and teachers were found to be of importance to positive mental health, whereas poor social relationships, loneliness and lack of influence were associated with mental health problems.  Perceived demands and responsibility taking regarding school work, relationships, future plans, appearance and financial issues were strongly related to mental health problems, particularly among girls regardless of social class. The results indicate that physical violence, sexual assault, bullying and sexual harassment are severe risk factors for mental health problems in young people. Boys and girls experienced different types of violence, and the victim-perpetrator relationships of physical violence differed. These diverging experiences appeared to influence the associations with mental health problems in boys and girls. A gender analysis provides the tools to gain knowledge about the ways that boys’ and girls’ lives are shaped by gender relations and constructions at different levels in society and how these life circumstances represent risk- or protective factors for mental health. For example, unequal power structures and the ways girls are expected to ‘do’ femininity likely influence their life circumstances in ways that place them at greater risk of mental health problems. Hegemonic constructions of masculinity and advantaged positions likely contribute to life circumstances that are positive for mental health but are also implying risk factors for poor mental health among boys, e.g., violence. It is also important to recognise how the intertwined cultural and structural aspects of gender and social class influence the lives and mental health of boys and girls. In conclusion, gendered and class-related mechanisms at the different levels in society influence the distribution of risk factors unevenly among boys and girls, which could be a possible explanation for the gender differences in reports of perceived stress, psychological distress and deliberate self-harm. The likelihood of gender and socioeconomic differences in mental health problems should be taken into account in prevention and health promotion strategies at all levels in society. A greater awareness about gender relations and the gendered social circumstances under which young people live is required. The school environment is an important arena with respect to prevention and health promotion. There is also a need for a joint action against violence and harassment at all levels in society. Implications do not only concern young people; social policy and legislation should focus on reducing gender and class inequalities in general.