Incorporating Children's Lives into a Life Course Perspective on Stress and Mental Health

The University of Western Ontario, Children's Health Research Institute, Canada.
Journal of Health and Social Behavior (Impact Factor: 2.72). 12/2010; 51(4):361-75. DOI: 10.1177/0022146510386797
Source: PubMed


Emerging themes in demography, developmental medicine, and psychiatry suggest that a comprehensive understanding of mental health across the life course requires that we incorporate the lives of children into our research. If we can learn more about the ways in which the stress process unfolds for children, we will gain important insights into the factors that influence initial set points of trajectories of mental health over the life course. This will simultaneously extend the scope of the stress process paradigm and elaborate the life course perspective on mental health. Incorporating children's lives into the sociology of mental health will also extend the intellectual influence of the discipline on sociomedical and biomedical research on mental illness. I contend that sociology's greatest promise in understanding trajectories of mental health across the life course lies in a systematic analysis of the social and social-psychological conditions of children, the stressful experiences that arise out of these conditions, and the processes that mediate and moderate the stress process in childhood. In this regard, there are three major issues that sociologists could begin to address: (1) the identification of structural and institutional factors that pattern children's exposure to stress; (2) the construction of a stress universe for children; and (3) the identification of key elements of the life course perspective that may set or alter trajectories of mental health in childhood and adolescence.

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    • "That is, disadvantaged groups show poorer physical, emotional, and behavioral health, in part, because they encounter higher levels of stress or possess fewer social or personal resources to reduce or buffer stress than do their advantaged counterparts (Turner and Avison 2003; Turner, Wheaton, and Lloyd 1995; Van Gundy et al. 2011). Health inequalities emerge early in life (Avison 2010; Chen, Martin, and Matthews 2006; Ferraro and Wilkinson 2013; Horwitz et al. 2001), and accordingly, an appreciation of the " stress process " in youth is important. In particular, isolating the mechanisms that underlie youth resiliency in high-stress contexts can inform policies aimed at reducing health disparities across the life course (George 2013; Thoits 2010). "
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    • "Thus, they draw attention to the opportunities and constraints that influence people's decisions as well as to the consequences of the chronology of events and experiences that constitute people's life histories. They place particular emphasis on childhood and adolescence and argue that events and experiences in these periods often have long-term consequences that may only be realized in adulthood (Avison, 2010; Hertzman, Power, Matthews , & Manor, 2001). "
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    • "It also seems clear that although both genetic and environmental factors play key roles in the causality of human disease, the interaction between genotype and environment ought to be a significant concern if we are to fully comprehend the link between socioeconomic status and health. Although genes can be expressed at specific times in development, Seabrook and Avison (2010) argue that a cross-sectional conceptualization and measurement of social context does not capture the dynamic properties of environment that determine the meaning of social experiences. Thus, a careful consideration of life course sociology may ensure that the dynamic nature of the environment in genotype-environment interaction is incorporated into explanations of social disparities in health. "
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