Positive childhood relationships linked to better mental health in adulthood

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A study from Columbia University, published in JAMA Psychiatry, reveals a significant link between positive relationships in childhood and improved mental health in adulthood.

This relationship holds true even when children face adverse experiences.

The research underscores the potential of interventions that promote supportive connections during childhood.

These interventions could be crucial in enhancing the mental health of young adults, particularly in reducing risks of disorders like depression and anxiety.

Sara VanBronkhorst, MD, MPH, the lead author and voluntary faculty in psychiatry at Columbia, emphasizes the importance of a nurturing relationship with a parent, caregiver, or another adult.

The study shows that children with at least one positive adult relationship are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and perceived stress later in life.

The study focused on marginalized and minoritized youth, who often face multiple adversities. It used data from the Boricua Youth Study (BYS), which followed three generations of Puerto Rican families for 20 years.

Approximately half of the study’s participants lived in Puerto Rico, with the rest residing in the South Bronx, New York.

Researchers assessed adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) at three points during childhood, including physical or emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, and household violence.

They also measured sociocultural factors associated with resilience, like social relationships and sources of meaning such as familism and family religiosity.

The findings indicated that social relationships, excluding peer relationships, were associated with less depression, anxiety, and stress in young adulthood.

However, family religiosity, typically seen as protective, correlated with more stress among young adults with high ACEs.

Interestingly, none of the resilience factors examined were linked to substance use disorder. Dr. VanBronkhorst suggests that factors like religiosity might have more complex roles than previously thought, potentially increasing feelings of shame and guilt in families dealing with ACEs.

The study highlights that while certain markers of resilience are important, they don’t fully shield against stress, depression, and anxiety.

This underscores the need to prevent ACEs and explore other support methods for children in adversity, especially within marginalized and minoritized communities.

Future research could explore the impact of financial resources, racism, and social equity on resilience. Dr. VanBronkhorst, who works with children with high ACEs, advocates for parenting classes, family therapy, and broader structural interventions to reduce adversities and stressors that hinder the formation of protective adult-child bonds.

Ultimately, the study reinforces that resilience is not just an individual trait but a process that requires accessible resources to foster strong relationships and meaningful experiences.

This research provides valuable insights into the lasting impact of childhood relationships on mental health and the potential of targeted interventions to foster resilience in vulnerable populations.

If you care about mental health, please read studies about how dairy foods may influence depression risk, and B vitamins could help prevent depression and anxiety.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and extra-virgin olive oil could reduce depression symptoms.

The research findings can be found in JAMA Psychiatry.

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