Communal leisure activities in youth support mental health into adulthood in young people with psychological symptoms

The sense of community associated with social leisure activities appears to be an important preventive factor in the development of psychological symptoms into psychiatric disorders. The effects of communal leisure activities on later mental health were investigated in a study based on large cohort data by the University of Oulu. The aim was to learn more about the effects of leisure activities on the later mental health of young people who have experienced psychological symptoms, such as depression or anxiety.   

The study is based on a cohort of people born in Northern Finland in 1986 (NFBC1986, n = 6709). Leisure activities and perceived psychological symptoms were investigated when the subjects were 15–16 years old. The subjects were followed up until early adulthood. At the end of the follow-up, they were 33 years old. Data and diagnoses related to psychiatric morbidity were collected from the comprehensive national registers.

According to the study, psychological symptoms experienced by young people and low levels of social activity during leisure time were associated with a higher prevalence of psychiatric disorders in early adulthood. Correspondingly, young people who were socially active in their leisure activities had lower rates of psychiatric morbidity later in life, despite the presence of anxiety symptoms in adolescence.

“A significant part of young people’s daily routines is related to leisure time. We already know from previous research that participation in guided activities has positive effects on young people’s psychological well-being. We have also previously shown that socially active leisure time in adolescence is associated with a lower incidence of psychiatric disorders in later life,” says doctoral researcher Johanna Timonen.

The present results support the notion that being active during leisure time may contribute to explaining the association between psychological symptoms in adolescence and psychiatric disorders in early adulthood.

“Social support provided by the community seems to play an important preventive role in the development of psychological symptoms into psychiatric disorders,” says Timonen. “Based on our findings, schools and other communities should strongly continue to develop and provide communal leisure activities equally for all children and young people.”

The study was supported by the Itla Children’s Foundation and the Alma and K. A. Snellman Foundation in Oulu. The study has also received funding from the The Strategic Research Council (SRC) at the Academy of Finland.

The study is published in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: Johanna, T., Mika, N., Helinä, H. et al. Social leisure time activities as a mediating link between self-reported psychological symptoms in adolescence and psychiatric morbidity by young adulthood: the Northern Finland 1986 Birth Cohort study. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2022).

Last updated: 15.2.2023