Positive Childhood Experiences Protect Against Depression in Teens

Summary: A new study highlights the critical need to restore community support systems for teenagers to enhance mental well-being post-pandemic. The study, using data from over 8,800 Grade 11 students, demonstrates that positive childhood experiences significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve life satisfaction.

Conversely, a higher number of adverse experiences correlates strongly with poor mental health outcomes. Researchers advocate for preemptive and systemic changes to foster environments that nurture positive childhood experiences and mitigate adverse ones.

Key Facts:

  1. Impact of Childhood Experiences: Positive experiences are linked to better mental health and life satisfaction, while adverse experiences increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and other serious health issues.
  2. Need for Proactive Support: The study underscores the importance of moving from reactive to proactive support, emphasizing early intervention to improve long-term mental health outcomes.
  3. Systemic Changes Recommended: Samji calls for systemic reforms across justice, health, and educational institutions to enhance support mechanisms that can prevent mental health crises among youth.

Source: Simon Fraser University

There is an urgent need to “bring back the village” post-pandemic to support teens and foster a sense of community belonging for young people, says a Simon Fraser University researcher.

A new study led by Hasina Samji, a professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, explored the role of modifiable community- and societal-level factors in youth mental health and well-being.

The study drew from Samji’s 2022 Youth Development Instrument survey of more than 8,800 Grade 11 students in B.C. schools. Data was collected from January to March 2022 during the fifth wave of the pandemic, a time that included the highest number of daily COVID-19 case counts.

This shows a child on a swing.
Positive childhood experiences include being supported by friends, feeling that their family stands by them during difficult times, feeling a sense of belonging to their community and being safe and protected by an adult in their home. Credit: Neuroscience News

Students were asked to note their number of positive and adverse experiences (up to age 18), the degree to which they experienced depression and anxiety symptoms, and to rank their mental well-being and life satisfaction.

According to Samji, having more positive childhood experiences was associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, and better life satisfaction and mental health. Conversely, people with a higher number of adverse childhood experiences had more symptoms of depression and anxiety, and poorer life satisfaction and mental health.

Adults with four or more adverse childhood experiences are four times more likely to experience depression and low life satisfaction, three times more likely to experience anxiety and are 30 times more likely at attempt suicide than people with no adverse childhood experiences.

“We can’t prevent adversity for all young people,” says Samji.

“We know adversity leads to so many poor outcomes across a whole host of domains, whether it’s infectious diseases, or substance use, or obesity, or cardiac disease. When you look at people who have been exposed to four or more adverse childhood experiences, versus fewer or zero adverse experiences—they are at higher risk for almost every poor health outcome.”

Importantly, positive childhood experiences were associated with better mental health and well-being even for youth who experienced adverse childhood experiences. Positive childhood experiences include being supported by friends, feeling that their family stands by them during difficult times, feeling a sense of belonging to their community and being safe and protected by an adult in their home.

Adverse childhood experiences include verbal, physical and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect, domestic violence, caregiver mental illness, incarceration, substance use and divorce.

Additional adverse experiences are also found at the societal-level (food-insecurity, homelessness); at the community-level (feeling unsafe at school or in the community); and at the family-level (caregiver separation or divorce).

“As a health-care system, we’re often very reactive,” Samji says. “Young people tell us that we wait for them to be in crisis before we provide the supports that they need. I really wanted to go upstream and think about what kind of individual level supports, but also structural and systemic supports can we provide earlier.”

Mental illness, Samji explains, is not randomly distributed in the populations, but follows a socio-economic gradient. The study therefore recommends systemic changes to provide extra supports to families, by institutions, (justice, health, schools), to increase positive childhood experiences and reduce adverse experiences.

“We have to change the paradigm,” Samji says. “When people think about mental health, they only think of mental illness, but mental health is so much more.

“Just like physical health, there is the illness aspect, but we know we can do more to support our physical health: We can work out, we can eat well. Similarly for mental health. Mental illness is not a done deal. You can delay it; you can prevent it in certain cases. There is, of course a genetic component, just like there is in physical illness.”

This study, and other research into the social and structural determinants of mental well-being, highlight the importance of promoting well-being by addressing social determinants of mental health—alongside supporting those with mental health challenges.

Samji’s Youth Development Instrument survey has grown to 32 school districts in 2024, more than half of the districts in B.C., from six school districts in 2021.

About this depression and neurodevelopment research news

Author: Jeff Hodson
Source: Simon Fraser University
Contact: Jeff Hodson – Simon Fraser University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Positive childhood experiences serve as protective factors for mental health in pandemic-era youth with adverse childhood experiences” by Hasina Samji et al. Child Abuse & Neglect


Positive childhood experiences serve as protective factors for mental health in pandemic-era youth with adverse childhood experiences


While adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) predict poorer mental health across the life course, positive childhood experiences (PCEs) predict better mental health. It is unclear whether PCEs protect against poor mental health outcomes and promote mental well-being in pandemic-era adolescents with ACEs.


We examined the individual and joint contributions of ACEs and PCEs to mental health and well-being (MHW) in eleventh-grade British Columbian adolescents (N = 8864) during the fifth wave of COVID-19. We used a novel measure of ACEs that included community- and societal-level ACEs in addition to ACEs experienced at home to investigate the role of social and structural determinants of mental health in supporting the MHW of pandemic-era adolescents. A series of two-way ANCOVAs were conducted comparing MHW outcomes between adolescents with and without ACEs. Interaction effects were examined to investigate whether PCEs moderated the association between ACEs and MHW.


Adolescents with no ACEs had significantly better MHW than those with one or more ACE. Having six or more PCEs was associated with better MHW in adolescents with and without ACEs. PCEs significantly moderated the association between ACEs and depression. Effect sizes were larger for PCEs than ACEs in relation to depression, mental well-being, and life satisfaction.


PCEs may protect against depression among adolescents with ACEs and promote MHW among all pandemic-era adolescents. These findings emphasize the importance of addressing social determinants of mental health to mitigate the impact of ACEs and promote PCEs as part of a public health approach to MHW.

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