Underprivileged youths more prone to mental health problems

December 10, 2016 - 06:00

One in four young people from poor families struggle with mental health problems, according to a nation wide survey. They are more prone to depressive moods and stress-related problems than young people from resourceful families.

Girls have far more mental health problems than boys. (Illustrative photo: Benjamin Ward, HiOA)

A naton wide survey in Norway (the Ungdata survey) has shown us that most of the country's young people are satisfied with their lives. They are active, have good relationships with their parents and friends and take a positive view of the future. At the same time, there has been increasing concern about mental health among young people in recent years.

Researcher Mira Aaboen Sletten has looked into which young people suffer the most. Is it the resourceful ‘good girls’ who suffer from performance anxiety, who struggle the most? Or is it other groups of young people?

To find out, Sletten has analysed the connection between mental health problems and socio-economic background, meaning the family’s financial situation and the parents’ level of education.

"We already know that girls have far more mental health problems than boys," says Sletten.

"In addition, we find that poor health is related to various degrees of resource deficiency and other problems, what is known as the local ladder effect."

Young people from families with sound finances and a high level of education, experience mental health problems less often than young people from families that have less resources and where the parents have a low level of education.

Stress-related ailments and other problems

"It is when we measure subjective health and health behaviour that we see the clearest differences relating to social background," explains Sletten.

By ‘subjective’ is meant the respondents’ own assessment of their health.

Facts

About the survey
The analyses are based on data from 80 municipal questionnaire surveys among lower secondary school pupils, conducted under the auspices of Ungdata in 2014.

In addition to questions about mental health problems, the survey contains information about friendship and bullying, about the level of conflict in families and the parents’ involvement in leisure activities, as well as questions about physical activities and screen time.

Source: Sletten, Mira Aaboen (2015). Psykiske plager blant ungdom: sosiale forskjeller og historien om de flinke pikene (‘Mental health problems among young people: social differences and the “good girl syndrome”’). Barn i Norge.

In the survey, young people are asked to state the extent to which they have experienced the following problems in the last week:

  1. Felt that everything is a struggle
  2. Had trouble sleeping
  3. Felt unhappy, sad or depressed
  4. Felt hopeless about the future
  5. Felt nervous or tense
  6. Worried too much about things

The response alternatives were: ‘Not at all’, ‘A little’, ‘Quite a lot’ and ‘Very much’. The six questions concern depressive moods and are taken from an internationally recognised scale. They must not be confused with a clinical depression diagnosis, however.

Good or bad financial state?

The survey has two measures of how well off the respondents’ families are. One subjective measure, where the young people themselves state whether their family is well off or not, and one objective measure that comprises questions about the family’s material resources – the number of holidays, the number of PCs, own bedroom etc.

These measures identify a small group of young people from families who are not well off: between 2% and 5% of Norwegian youth. Five per cent state that their family is almost always or constantly short of money.

Social background has an effect on both the subjective and the objective measure, and a pattern emerges: the higher the family’s social status, the fewer youths with many mental health problems.

Many have mental health problems

Sletten finds the clearest connection between poor finances and many mental health problems in young people who themselves perceive their family to be in a poor financial situation. In this group, two-thirds of the respondents have between four and six of the problems mentioned in the Ungdata surveys.

"This is in stark contrast to the respondents from the middle and higher social strata," says Sletten.

"Here, only 17% have equally many problems."

Poor people more at risk of bullying

Facts

How does a person develop mental health problems?
Researchers largely agree that mental health problems develop in a complex interplay between genetic, biological and environmental factors in the individual.

Environmental factors have the most effect on milder problems among children and young people, while genetic factors are more strongly related to the risk of developing more serious and chronic illness.

Sletten explains that three environmental factors are often emphasised when researchers try to find out how social differences in health arise. One is the access to material goods and physical living conditions.

The second is psychosocial factors such as stress and low social support, and the third is behaviour such as smoking, food habits and physical activity.

Previous research has shown that children and young people who grow up in poor families often state that the family’s finances make it difficult for them to participate in social activities that cost money.

At the same time, most have experienced bullying and exclusion because they are unable to buy consumer goods that confer a high status among their peers. Research also shows that persistent bullying or harassment from their peers is related to mental health problems in young people.

Financial stress for the parents can contribute to conflicts in the family and a lower degree of follow-up by the parents. This may in turn lead to mental health problems in youth.

Little follow-up by parents

Sletten has found out that young people from lower social strata spend more time in front of a screen than others.

Depression is also more widespread among these young people. Sletten did not find anything to indicate that inactivity is the cause, however. It has more to do with whether the parents get involved in their children’s after-school activities.

"Across social classes, we see the same proportion of young people with depressive problems in families with the same degree of conflict and parental involvement. It is more likely a higher level of conflict and distant parents that mean that there are more depressed young people, relatively speaking, in poor families," she points out.

The ‘good girl syndrome’

So how do the findings fit with the ‘good girl’ theory, i.e. girls who are so stressed that they become ill? In that context, we may expect that an upbringing where parents follow their children up closely, both at school and in leisure activities, contributes to the pressure to perform well in several arenas at the same time.

Sletten’s analysis paints a slightly different picture of mental health problems among Norwegian youth. The scope of subjective health problems is clearly greatest among young people from families with a low socio-economic status. This also applies to stress-related symptoms such as sleep problems or the feeling that everything is a struggle.

So even though middle class girls should be more exposed to different types of pressure and stress than before, they are not overrepresented among the respondents who state that they have many mental health problems.

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Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA) is Norway‘s largest state university college. Read more

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