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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 03:31 GMT
Sharing meals 'boosts mental health'
Eating with their family benefits teenagers' health
Eating with their family benefits teenagers' health
Teenagers from families who eat together appear to have fewer mental health problems, a study has shown.

A third of families of adolescents with mental health problems ate dinner separately compared with just over 17% of the families with healthy youngsters.

Researchers suggest sharing meals is a "unifying ritual" which promotes adolescent mental health.

Excluding breakfast, young people using mental health services ate fewer than five meals a week with their parents, compared with more than six for healthy teenagers.

Gathering information on ritual and family activities could ... identify the possible presence of social/familial factors that influence the patient's condition

Researchers, Alicante Medical Centre
Those with mental health problems also tended to miss both lunch and dinner at the weekends.

Healthy adolescents were also more likely to take part in family parties and religious festivals, and to do so with members of their extended family, than their peers with mental health problems.

Both groups watched the same amount of TV, but the families of healthy young people shared more talking, excursions, holidays and other activities.

Adolescents who had experienced mental health problems were much more likely to describe their families as dysfunctional.

Home habits

The study, by doctors at Alicante Medical Centre, compared 83 adolescents aged between 14 and 23 who were first-time users of mental health services, with 177 of the same age group who attended local educational institutions.

Most of those who had attended the mental health services were suffering from anxiety and depression.

All the teenagers who took part in the study, carried out in Alicante, Spain, still lived at home with their parents.

Researchers looked at family size, the inclusion of extended family members, parents' educational level and the mother's employment status.

All these factors 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.

Their parents were also three times as likely to have retired.

Family factors

The authors of the study, led by Dr Elena Compan Paveda, wrote that sharing daily meals is a unifying ritual that promotes adolescent mental health, and which could compensate for other factors that might serve to distance family members, acting as a self regulating mechanism for family life.

They said: "Gathering information on ritual and family activities could be included in interviews of professionals working with adolescents in the clinical field to identify the possible presence of social/familial factors that influence the patient's condition."

Dinah Morley, deputy director of Young Minds, the mental health charity for children and adolescents, told BBC News Online the lack of a secure family situation did increase the risk of a mental health disorder for teenagers.

She said information about the family's habits could help professionals treat the adolescent.

"You need to have a look at what's going on in the family, which is how the child and adolescent mental health system works," she said.

"That enables you to advise and support the family in a different way of being and behaviour in relation to the child and the whole family."

The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

See also:

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