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Protective Factors

Protective Factors are conditions that contribute to positive mental health, and allow a person to be resilient in the face of challenges. 

School Happenings...

High school and middle school students learned how to "stack" their protective factor card deck and how to start a conversation with a friend they might be worried about. Elementary students identified the helpers in order to fill their "Cup of Comfort ."


A protective factor is any characteristic that has been found to contribute to good mental health or to reduce the likelihood of illness (e.g., depression) or harmful behavior (e.g., substance abuse).  Protective factors can be skills, strengths, or resources.  Generally, the more protective factors one has, the better equipped he or she will be at overcoming life’s obstacles. 

While the causes of mental illness have a long history of being studied, it is only recently that attention has been given to what might protect someone from illness, and particularly in those individuals who are at risk for developing one.  The body of research investigating the protective factors for child and adolescent mental health is steadily increasing, some of which has targeted two  areas of growing concern:  youth substance abuse and suicide.

Protective Factors for Good Mental Health

Researchers consistently cite family stability and support as perhaps the strongest of variables in reducing risk of mental illness.  When a family is stable, children are less likely to develop anxiety and depression, and when they feel supported, they’re more likely to have higher self-esteem and make better choices.  There is also research which suggests that LGBTQ adolescents who experience love and support at home are far less likely to develop a mental illness or abuse substances as compared to those with an unaccepting family.   

Other factors believed to serve a protective function include having a supportive social network with healthy, nurturing relationships, maintaining strong ties to community, and a commitment to school.  Good social skills, the development of strong problem-solving skills, knowledge of effective coping skills, and the ability to adapt to change are other important protective factors for individuals who are otherwise at risk for developing a mental illness (e.g., family history of mental health problems, a chronic medical condition, or stress of living in poverty or experiencing frequent conflict).

The same factors that protect one’s general mental health are also cited in studies specific to reducing substance abuse and suicide in school age students.  Some research on youth substance abuse suggests that parental support and involvement is such a strong protective factor that it may even diminish one of the strongest known risk factors- the influence of friends who abuse drugs or alcohol. As with other conditions, research shows that the risk for substance abuse increases as the number of risk factors (e.g., genetic predisposition, prenatal alcohol exposure, parental modeling of drug or alcohol use, anxiety, depression) goes up.   This risk is thought to be reduced as the number of protective factors someone has increases. 

In addition to a strong sense of connectedness (i.e., to family, friends, and community), a strong self-esteem, and the development of good problem-solving and coping skills, the following are believed to decrease the risk of suicide in school age children:  a sense of purpose in life; cultural, religious or personal beliefs that discourage suicide; involvement in hobbies or activities; responsibilities and duties to others; pet ownership.

Final Note

While some protective factors (e.g., genetics, family)  are not within our control, there are plenty of others that are (e.g., who you choose to cultivate friendships with, how you cope with stress).  By focusing on those within our control, we will not only be better equipped to deal with life’s obstacles as they arise but we are likely taking steps to protect our mental health.