Socioeconomic Status And Adolescent Mental Disorders

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A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that an individual’s perception of their social status (relative to others) may drive the correlation between socioeconomic status and adolescent mental health. (Thanks to the Kaiser Foundation for this link.)

According to the study, research shows a correlation between low socioeconomic status and mental health disorders. The authors of this study sought to understand the associations between mental health disorders in adolescents and five aspects of socioeconomic status: parental education, income, relative deprivation, community-level income inequality, and subjective social status. The study used 2001-2004 data from a national survey of adolescents, the National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), to learn more about the socioeconomic status of teens. The final sample included 6,483 child-parent pairs, in which a teenager participated in the NCS-A and a parent provided additional information on the participating adolescent’s mental health history and status. Mental disorders were grouped into four categories: mood, anxiety, disruptive behavior, and substance abuse disorders. Parental education was defined as college graduate or advanced degree, some college, high school graduate, or less than a high school education. Household income was measured in reference to the poverty line. The relative deprivation and community-level income inequality variables both captured elements of income inequality. Subjective social status was defined as an individual’s perception of being worse or better off than other people. The study found a significant correlation between lower subjective social status and all four mental health disorder categories included in the analysis. However, this relationship was weaker for adolescents whose parents had low levels of educational attainment. Other findings indicated that status perceptions might only be relevant above a certain socioeconomic status threshold, weakening the correlation for teenagers in extremely low socioeconomic status households.

The researchers concluded that status perceptions might be an important age-specific determinant of mental health for teens, due to the acute social sensitivity associated during adolescence. Additional research is needed to design interventions leveraging subjective social status as a mechanism for reducing health disparities.

(McLaughlin KA, Costello EJ, Leblanc W, et al. Socioeconomic Status and Adolescent Mental Disorders. American Journal of Public Health. 2012 Sept; DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300477).

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