Shared family mealtimes predict fewer mental health problems in adolescents

Adolescents from families where mealtimes and other activities are shared seem to have fewer mental health problems, reports a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Researchers assessed the family habits and rituals of 82 first time users, aged between 14 and 23, of mental health services in one metropolitan area. Anxiety and depression were the main problems for which treatment was sought. Family practices in 177 young people within the same age band from various educational institutions in the same area were also studied. All participants still lived at home with their parents.

Excluding breakfast, young people using mental health services ate fewer than five meals a week with their parent(s), compared with more than six for their healthy peers. They also tended to miss weekday dinners and both lunch and dinner at the weekends. A third of the families of those with mental health problems ate dinner separately compared with just over 17 per cent of the families with healthy youngsters.

Healthy young people were also more likely to take part in family parties and religious festivals, and with members of their extended family, than were their depressed or anxious peers. The amount of TV watched was the same in both groups, but the families of healthy young people shared more talking, excursions, holidays and other activities.

Young people with mental health problems were also significantly more likely to view their families as dysfunctional than were their healthy peers.

Factors that might have influenced the findings, such as the educational levels of both parents, the mother’s employment status, family size, and the inclusion of extended family members, were similar for both groups. But young people using mental health services were significantly more likely to come from non-nuclear and single parent families. And their parents were also three times as likely to have retired.

The authors conclude that sharing daily meals is a unifying ritual that promotes adolescent mental health. And they suggest that this ritual compensates for other factors that might serve to distance family members, and so acts as a self regulating mechanism for family life.

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