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An Australian-first QUT study on family traits that can ‘protect’ against developing mental health issues is calling on young people aged 16 to 25 and their parents to take part in a national survey.
With half of all Australians likely to face anxiety or depression in their lifetime, lead QUT researcher Olivia Fisher said the study aimed to find out if parents and children shared similar traits that helped or hindered their mental health.It will specifically look at three key protective factors that can keep our thoughts healthy – belonging, optimism and emotion management.The anonymous 15-minute online survey is open to all Australian residents aged 16 to 25 and also needs to be completed by their parents. Researchers want 300 families to take part by the end of July and are seeking people who have not had mental health issues, as well as those who have.“We want to get a representation of Australians across the spectrum, so we’re interested in hearing from everyone,” Ms Fisher said.“Mental health costs Australia billions of dollars each year and most of that money relates to treatment and lost productivity, not prevention.“It’s really early days in prevention research but it appears that a lot of depression and anxiety is preventable.“Our QUT study is specifically looking at three mental health ‘protective factors’ that can help provide a buffer to developing depression or anxiety symptoms. We want to see if there’s an inter-generational relationship between these protective factors and any depression and anxiety disorder symptoms of young people and their parents.”Ms Fisher said identifying such a relationship could open up avenues to work with parents to potentially protect their kids’ mental health by enhancing their own protective factors first.
“The three protective factors we’re researching are sense of belonging, optimism and emotion management,” she said. “Having a strong sense of belonging can really help protect someone against anxiety and depression, because it makes people feel like they have a place in our society and fit in and are accepted as part of a group. It might be a feeling of belonging to a family, to a sporting group, to a school or university – or even to an online community. “Belonging has been identified many times as being very important for your mental health and very important in suicide prevention. “The next factor our study and the survey looks at is optimism. By optimism, we don’t mean going around with rose-coloured glasses and thinking everything’s wonderful all the time. Rather, optimists can see what’s going on, but they default to looking at the opportunities of a situation, rather than the problems. They look at positives that can come out of it and what could come next. “The third protective factor is emotion management. Our study looks at one aspect of this which is rumination – going over something again and again in your mind and getting stuck on it. The healthier, flip side of this is reappraisal – being able to think about a situation in a different way and not getting bogged down in the difficulties and stress.”Ms Fisher said the survey was targeting young people as they were most at risk – and the most in need of protective strategies.“We already know that if you’re going to get a mental health disorder you’re most likely to start to show symptoms between the ages of 12 and 25,” she said.“Many young people experience problems earlier but it’s often not until high school or later that these problems are really picked up.”Ms Fisher worked in mental health for 15 years prior to her QUT research, first as an occupational therapist in acute psychiatric facilities and community services, and then as the Queensland coordinator of the world-renowned Mind Matters prevention-based project for high schools.“Over my career I became very interested in prevention and I noticed there was a significant research gap around the relationship between mental health protective factors of parents and the levels of these factors in their kids,” she said.“For example, do parents who have a higher sense of belonging have children who have a higher sense of belonging? We don’t know yet so our research aims to shed light in this area.“If there is a relationship between protective factors in parents and their kids, it opens up other avenues for research and for working with parents to potentially protect their kids’ mental health by enhancing their own protective factors.”Ms Fisher said it was important that two generations from each family completed the online survey – young people aged 16 to 25 and their parents.“It’s ground-breaking research that could have a major impact on how our society rolls out prevention initiatives in the future,” she said.“My intention is to open up new avenues for research and to promote the idea that prevention really is possible.“We’re developing our understanding about the importance of belonging, optimism, and regulating our emotions. It’s something we can all be helped with, if we have a clear strategy – but that strategy is not something we’re born with, it needs to be learnt.”The survey is a central part of Ms Fisher’s PhD (Health) study with QUT’s Faculty of Health, which she is completing with the help of an Australian Postgraduate Award Scholarship and the assistance of Dr Julie-Anne Carroll and Professor Ian Shochet.People can complete the anonymous QUT survey online and then forward a link to their parent or adult child so that they can also take part.