What children write about may predict future mental health

24 May 2024

Children who express positive thoughts and feelings in their creative writing are less likely to show symptoms of depression at the age of 23, according to research led by Chapman University in California.  

The research, which used data from the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), shows that children’s personal reflections in their writing can act as a valuable predictor of adult mental health.  

Lead author, Dr Julia Boehm (Chapman University) said: “As the number of young adults facing mental health problems rises, it is critical to identify factors earlier in life that may protect against emotional distress. Our research found that young adolescents who showed higher levels of positive psychological wellbeing – including more positive emotions, optimism, and purpose – were less likely to be distressed a dozen years later.”   

The researchers analysed data on more than 4,500 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in 1958 who are taking part in NCDS. In 1969 when the participants were age 11, they were tasked with writing an essay imagining what their lives would be like when they reached the age of 25. Later, when study participants were 23, they were asked questions which captured whether they were experiencing symptoms of depression.  

The research team gave each essay a ‘psychological wellbeing’ score based on the degree to which the children expressed seven unique elements of positive psychological wellbeing: positive emotions, optimism, purpose in life, life satisfaction, personal growth, mastery, and pleasant experiences.   

The study found that children whose essays gained a higher positive psychological wellbeing score at age 11 were less likely to report symptoms of depression 12 years later. 

However, the degree to which the children’s personal reflections predicted their experience of depression in early adulthood was not the same across the board. Girls, and those who had lower cognitive ability in childhood, felt the impact of having a low psychological wellbeing score the most 

Girls with low psychological wellbeing ratings at age 11 were more likely to report symptoms of depression at age 23 than other girls and their male counterparts. For boys, low psychological wellbeing in childhood was less strongly predictive of experiences of depression in early adulthood. 

Among both girls and boys, depressive symptoms at 23 were highest for those with a combination of a low psychological wellbeing rating and low cognitive ability at age 11. For those with high cognitive ability, having a low psychological wellbeing score in childhood had a smaller impact on depressive symptoms later on.  

Dr Boehm added: “This research shows that children’s personal reflections may be valuable in predicting their mental health trajectories and can provide new insights above and beyond other key measures, including teacher reports of behavioural difficulties and emotional problems. Combining this type of self-reported data with data from other sources, for example teacher and parent reports of behaviour, may give a fuller picture of mental health. This could be of benefit in clinical settings, supporting early intervention and preventative mental health support. 

“In addition, this study highlights the importance of focusing mental health support on improving psychological wellbeing – which serves as a resource for managing challenges, coping with stress, building positive relationships and avoiding unhealthy or risky behaviours – as well as reducing psychological distress. As we see rates of mental-ill health increasing among younger generations, policy and practice should look to target the development of psychological well-being among children.  

Further information 

In the Words of Early Adolescents: A Novel Assessment of Positive Psychological Well-Being Predicts Young Adult Depressive Symptoms by Julia K Boehm, Farah Qureshi and Laura D Kubzansky is available on Science Direct 

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