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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. To receive an occasional digest of this news please add your name to the monthly Collegiate Way mailing list.

“Food is the currency of all social transactions…”

— One of the mantras I repeat throughout the Collegiate Way website is that “food is the currency of all social transactions in a residential college.” The importance of students dining with one another and also with faculty is fundamental to the social health of a collegiate community. This recent news report makes the same point in a family context. It’s common sense, one would hope, but it is a bit of common sense that most universities have sadly forgotten.

Family Meal Times Linked to Teens’ Mental Health

By Charnicia E. Huggins (Thursday January 17 11:12 AM ET)

NEW YORK (Reuters Health)—Many adolescents with anxiety, depression or other mental health problems come from families that don’t eat meals together or participate in similar family rituals as often as the families of adolescents without such psychological problems, according to the results of a small study.

“Union rituals (such as sharing meals) serve to transmit belief systems and norms of behaviour,” write Dr. Elena Compan Poveda, of Health and Social Services of Alicante District in Spain, and her colleagues. The lack of such practices can adversely affect a person’s maturation, and the “resolution of the crisis of adolescence” may be impeded, they add.

The findings are based on a study of 259 male and female youths aged 14 to 23. Eighty-two participants—the study group—were recruited from mental health outpatient clinics where they had sought first-time treatment, most commonly for anxiety and depression. The remaining 177 youths, recruited from a local school and university, served as a comparison group.…

In general, the study group ate fewer meals with their parents than their peers in the comparison group, the investigators report.… “Sharing daily meals with the family constitutes a union ritual that promotes adolescent mental health,” the authors write. Celebrating special events with the extended family is another union ritual, they note, which was also more common among those in the comparison group.…

“The decrease in family activities that improve adolescent-family communication and emotional closeness, is related to a more frequent use of mental health services,” Compan Poveda and her team write. The researchers note that the study group’s decreased family eating time and participation in family rituals could have contributed to their mental health problems, but may also have been the result of these problems. “The cause and effect continuum could run in either direction,” the authors conclude.

Commenting on the study, Dr John Ashton, co-editor of the journal in which the study is published, said that the study results “support something which many of us have long suspected—namely that the Americanization of European family life is undermining very important social mechanisms for producing resilience in the next generation.… If families don’t regularly touch base, is it surprising that parents do not know when their children are getting into difficulties?”

Source: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 56: 89–94 (2002).

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014