Mental Illness Risk Factors in Teens and Protective Factors

If two teens experienced the same trauma, they will vary in their response to that trauma, depending upon the risk factors or the protective factors in their lives. For instance, if a teen was exposed to violence and it was a traumatic experience for them, not having anyone to talk to about it can be a mental illness risk factor. If parents were dismissive of a teen’s feelings and ignored the event altogether, that can also be a risk factor. In other words, there are circumstances that can either worsen or improve the psychological well-being of a teen after they’ve experienced a significant event.

Generally, risk factors are those circumstances that put teens at risk for coping in a healthy way and can contribute to psychological disorders like major depression or post traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, protective factors are the opposite. These are circumstances that can help protect teens by helping them with their symptoms and/or finding meaning in their experiences.

Mental Illness Risk Factors

Here are a few examples of mental illness risk factors for teens:

  • living in an area that has few or no community resources
  • parents who are homeless
  • mental illness in the family
  • addiction in the family
  • little to no support from family members
  • dismissive or abusive responses from family members about a teen’s experience
  • history of trauma
  • experiencing a learning disorder
  • history of aggression in the family or in the community
  • low IQ
  • involvement with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco
  • inability to control behavior
  • deficits in social or cognitive abilities
  • developmental delays
  • association with delinquent or unhealthy peers
  • social rejection by peers
  • poor academic performance
  • low commitment to school
  • poor family functioning
  • low parental involvement
  • little to no attachment to parents or caregivers

Protective Factors

On the other hand, there are many protective factors that parents and other caring adults can provide for teens that can ease their experience of trauma. For instance, the following are examples of protective factors:

  • having caring and supportive people around
  • ability to discuss problems with parents
  • perceived parental expectations about school performance are high
  • frequent shared activities with parents
  • consistent presence of a parent or caregiver
  • involvement in social activities
  • family or parental guidance on how to solve problems or cope
  • close relationships with positive friends and peers
  • membership in positive peer groups
  • commitment to school and investment in doing well for the future
  • high IQ
  • positive feelings toward ability to be social
  • the presence of religion or spirituality in life
  • developed skills for planning for the future

Parents and caregivers should also be aware that there are also some mental illness risk factors that come with being either male or female. For instance, female adolescents tend to be more prone to depression than men. There are even risk factors of depression that are specific to teens, such as having parents with depression, especially if the mother is depressed, early trauma or negative experiences, and early exposure to stress, neglect, or abuse. Typically, teens have a higher risk for getting depression than adults.

Additional Factors That Contribute to Teen Mental Illness

Furthermore, other factors play a role in the development of a mental illness. These include:

Genetics: Research indicates that genes play a role in whether or not a teen develops a psychological disorder. If an adolescent has a relative with a certain disorder, there is a greater likelihood that he or she may also have the same illness (such as with Bipolar Disorder or Schizophrenia). However, there are also some teens who have psychological illnesses and who do not have relatives afflicted by the same disorder.

Physical: Some mental disorders are caused by certain deficiencies in the brain. For instance, there are specific neurotransmitters in the brain that govern one’s ability to pay attention and focus, mood, and level of energy.  When a teen has low levels of certain neurotransmitters, it may be an indicator that he or she may have or is developing a psychological illness.

Environmental: There are certain environmental factors that have been known to cause mental illness. For instance, a teen’s exposure to violence, abuse, drugs, and addiction can contribute to psychological illness later in life. For instance, as mentioned above, continued exposure to violence can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are many factors that can either improve or worsen a teen’s psychological illness, particularly if they’ve experienced a traumatic event. If you are a parent or caregiver, being aware of mental illness risk factors and keeping protective factors in mind can support your teen’s well being.

However, if you have any concerns about your teen’s psychological health, contact a mental health provider today.