In psychology, risk factors are the aspects or conditions that significantly increase the probability of developing a mental health disorder (Bem & De Jong, 2013).
A well-known example is chronic stress—a psychological risk factor—which elevates the probability of suffering from anxiety disorders (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020).
Risk factors do not exist in a vacuum. They often interact in complex ways, cumulatively increasing the individual’s risk profile (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022).
Strategies that identify and reduce the impact of risk factors can prevent the onset of mental and physical health conditions (Reber, 2019). As an example, cognitive-behavioral therapy seeks to manage personal tendencies towards negative thinking patterns (a risk factor) to help mitigate the occurrence of depressive disorders (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022).
Risk Factors Examples
1. Individual Level
- Low self-esteem: This is a self-evaluation where an individual perceives themselves negatively, with minimal value or worth (Bem & De Jong, 2013). A strengthening action against this could be encouraging the individual to participate in activities they are passionate about and proficient in, enhancing their sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
- Poor coping mechanisms: This refers to ineffective strategies individuals use to manage stress, often escalating the situation instead of alleviating it (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Interventions here could focus on teaching adaptive strategies like mindfulness or cognitive-behavioral techniques to improve stress response.
- Impulse control problems: This occurs when people find it difficult to resist urges or behaviors that may be harmful to themselves or others (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy can help manage impulsivity and develop self-control.
- Intellectual disabilities: These are disorders characterized by significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Early intervention, individualized learning plans, and supportive services could help individuals reach their full potential.
- Pessimistic outlook: This refers to a tendency to view situations or future events in a negative light, expecting unfavorable outcomes (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Cognitive restructuring, via clinical therapies, might help establish a healthier, more balanced mindset.
- Substance abuse tendencies: This alludes to patterns of excessive or harmful use of substances (not discussing specifics due to content preferences) (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Diversifying interest areas and engaging in community-based activities could assist in reducing such tendencies.
- Difficulty with problem-solving: This refers to challenges in identifying solutions to problems within functional and acceptable parameters (Reber, 2019). Introduction to and practice of structured problem-solving techniques could enhance this skill.
- History of trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): These are stressful or disturbing experiences that occurred in one’s childhood, which can have lasting impacts on mental and physical health (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Trauma-informed therapy and support groups can play a preventative role by providing a platform for processing these experiences healthily.
- Frequent experiences of stress or anxiety: This is when an individual frequently experiences heightened emotionality in response to various stimuli, perpetuating a state of distress (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Regular physical activity has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety on a consistent basis.
- Limited problem-solving skills: This refers to a deficiency in the ability to effectively determine solutions to challenges or problems (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Development of these skills could benefit from targeted educational interventions promoting critical thinking and mindset shifts towards problem-solving.
2. Family Level
- History of generational trauma: This refers to traumas that have affected multiple generations within a family, resulting in continued stress and psychological impact (Reber, 2019). Family group therapy could lend support to such families to break the cycle of trauma.
- Parental incarceration: This involves the imprisonment of a child’s caregiver, which can lead to adverse emotional and behavioral outcomes in children (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Interventions like mentorship programs can provide children with positive role models and emotional support.
- Early caregiver disruptions (e.g., frequent foster care moves): Such disruptions entail frequent shifts in primary caregivers, leading to unstable attachment relationships and emotional distress in children (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Assistance here could involve providing stable and supportive foster care environments or promoting long-term adoptions.
- Divorce: This refers to the ending of marriage, which can introduce instability into children’s lives and possibly lead to distress or behavioral changes (Miller, 2016). Family therapy and children’s support groups have shown potential in helping children address and process the emotions surrounding divorce.
- Lack of parental supervision or involvement: This involves parents not actively engaging in their children’s lives, leading to a lack of emotional support and guidance (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Parenting programs, focusing on the importance of involvement, can help address this issue.
- Inconsistent or harsh discipline: This concerns a parental practice of irregular or overly punitive disciplinary actions, which can confuse children and promote fear over understanding (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Parental education that fosters understanding of age-appropriate and consistent discipline may be beneficial.
- Permissive parenting: This is defined as a parenting style where parents place few demands or controls on their children, potentially leading to poor self-regulation in children (Reber, 2019). Here, training sessions on balanced parenting, focusing on the importance of appropriate boundaries and expectations could be beneficial.
- Economic hardship or poverty: This refers to a family’s struggle to meet basic needs due to financial constraints, which can contribute to stress and potential developmental issues in children (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Policies aimed at reducing poverty, including resources for obtaining material aid and support services for families in economic distress, could help alleviate these effects.
3. Peer Level
- Association with delinquent peers: This refers to engaging with peers who exhibit behavioral problems or engage in antisocial activities, which may encourage similar behavior (Miller, 2016). One counterbalancing action could be engaging these individuals in structured activities that promote positive peer associations.
- Peer rejection or social isolation: This involves being consistently dismissed or avoided by peers, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and potentially increase risk factors for mental health issues (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Intervention might involve social skills training to improve interactions and relationships with peers.
- Negative peer pressure: This speaks to the influence of peers encouraging unethical or harmful behaviors in an individual (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Prevention efforts might be centered around teaching resilience skills to resist such presses, or building communication channels with supportive adults.
- Frequent changes in peer groups or lack of stable friendships: This pertains to having unstable relationships and constant changes in friendship groups, leading to unstable social support (Reber, 2019). Consistent involvement in community activities or clubs could offer a platform for forming steady and supportive relationships.
- Peers who promote exclusionary or prejudiced behaviors: This is the scenario where individuals’ peer groups foster discriminatory or biased attitudes, affecting their perception and treatment of others (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Preventative measures could include education programs that promote diversity acceptance, empathy, and respect for all community members.
4. School Level
- Poor academic performance: This refers to a consistent failure to meet educational standards or objectives, which can hinder personal growth and self-esteem (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Academic assistance such as tutoring or learning support services could improve performance and restore confidence.
- School absenteeism or truancy: This is characterized by frequent or prolonged unexcused absence from school, potentially leading to academic and social setbacks (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Regular parent-teacher communications and engagement could offer insight into underlying issues and facilitate better attendance.
- Lack of school engagement or connection: This is when a student is uninvolved or lacks interest in school activities which may result in low motivation and sense of belonging (Reber, 2019). The implementation of participatory and interactive learning experiences could boost engagement.
- High school dropout: This occurs when students leave secondary school prematurely, resulting in long-term impacts on their career prospects and personal development (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Addressing dropout cases may involve offering vocational or alternative educational options that cater to diverse learning needs and career aspirations.
- Negative school environment (e.g., high rates of bullying, low teacher support): This pertains to a school climate that is unhealthy, unsupportive, or unsafe (Miller, 2016). Programs promoting empathy and kindness, or campaigns against bullying, as well as teacher development programs can help foster a positive school climate.
- Inadequate access to academic resources (e.g., tutors, counselors): This is a situation where students lack necessary learning aids or guidance, limiting their academic success (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Solutions could include increasing budget allocations towards such resources or collaborating with nonprofits who could offer support.
- Discrimination or exclusion based on race, gender, or other factors: This addresses instances where students face unfair treatment due to their identity (Bem & De Jong, 2013). A intervention could involve school-wide training on diversity and inclusivity, to foster respect for all students, irrespective of identity markers.
- School policies that excessively punish rather than rehabilitate: This references disciplinary actions that focus more on punitive measures rather than corrective or rehabilitative strategies (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Advocacy for evidence-based discipline strategies that prioritize restorative justice rather than punishment could make a substantial difference.
5. Community Level
- Lack of recreational or community resources: This refers to underserved communities where facilities for physical, cultural, or social activities are limited or absent (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Countermeasures could involve community projects aimed at creating recreational spaces or resources.
- Social isolation: This speaks to a lack of social connections and a sense of belonging within one’s local community (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Community events, clubs, or shared spaces may facilitate connectivity and reduce isolation.
- Lack of community cohesion: This means the absence of common values or shared identity among community members, hampering community spirit (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022). Cultivating a sense of cohesion could be achieved through community-wide events or initiatives focusing on local identity or shared values.
- Limited access to services (health, education, social): This occurs when adequate services essential for general well-being are unavailable or difficult to access (Reber, 2019). Enhanced funding and legislative efforts could focus on ensuring equitable access to these crucial services.
- Lack of job opportunities: This is a scenario where there are insufficient employment options in the community, therefore negatively impacting income levels and quality of life (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). Initiatives to attract businesses or invest in vocational training can enhance job prospects.
- Environmental hazards or pollutants: This involves exposure to harmful substances in the environment that can adversely affect physical health and quality of life (Bem & De Jong, 2013). Advocacy for strict environmental regulations and clean-up initiatives can help ensure safer living conditions.
- Lack of safe spaces or public areas: This happens when there is a deficit in safe, public environments that facilitate interaction and recreational activities (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Creating such spaces could involve urban planning that considers community needs, or prioritizes safe, public gathering spaces.
Risk Factors vs Protective Factors
Protective factors and risk factors are two critical concepts that help explain the potential development of mental health disorders and overall psychological well-being (Crisp & Turner, 2020).
- Risk factors are conditions that increase the likelihood of developing psychological problems (Bem & De Jong, 2013). These conditions span from personal, biological, to social dimensions, and are antecedents to potential disorders.
- Protective factors are conditions that enhance people’s resilience and help them cope effectively with stressful situations (Crisp & Turner, 2020). These conditions, ranging from strong social support networks to healthy coping mechanisms, serve as a buffer against the development and severity of mental health disorders. An instance of this would be an individual with a healthy lifestyle (exercising, healthy diet, and sufficient sleep) who can better manage life stressors and is therefore less likely to develop depression (Reber, 2019).
Protective factors can mitigate the impact of risk factors, thereby reducing their potential harm. For instance, teenagers exposed to negative peer pressure (a risk factor) but possessing strong self-esteem and parental support (protective factors) are less likely to adopt the negative behaviors of their peers (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022).
|Aspect||Risk Factors||Protective Factors|
|Definition||Conditions or attributes that increase the likelihood of a negative outcome.||Conditions or attributes that reduce or mitigate the likelihood of a negative outcome.|
|Examples (Individual Level)||– Low self-esteem|
– Poor coping mechanisms
– Impulse control problems
|– Emotional resilience|
– Positive coping strategies
– Sense of purpose or future orientation
|Examples (Family Level)||– Family conflict|
– Parental substance abuse
– Economic hardship
|– Close family bonds|
– Supportive home environment
– Economic stability
|Examples (Community Level)||– High neighborhood deviance|
– Limited access to services
– Social isolation or marginalization
|– Active community groups|
– Access to mental health services
– Availability of community resources
|Potential Outcomes||– Increased vulnerability to adverse effects|
– Heightened chances of negative life events
– Reduced resilience against challenges
|– Enhanced ability to face challenges|
– Reduced chances of negative life events
– Strengthened resilience and positive adaptation
Importantly, this dynamic is best viewed through a developmental lens since risk or protective factors influence changes during the individual’s lifespan (Reber, 2019). During adolescence, for instance, good academic performance can function as a protective factor against truancy, whereas in adulthood, academic performance is often far less important as factors like a supportive spouse.
Risk factors play a critical role in human psychology. From familial history, personal behaviors, stressors, to social conditions, these elements, when present, increase the likelihood of developing psychological disturbances. As a result, studying and managing these factors is highly relevant in promoting overall mental and physical health.
Bem, S., & De Jong, H. L. (2013). Theoretical issues in psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.
Crisp, R. J. and Turner, R. N. (2020). Essential Social Psychology. London: Sage.
Hewstone, M. and Stroebe, W. (2020). An Introduction to Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Kassin, S., Privitera, J. and Clayton, K. (2022). Essentials of Psychology. New York: Sage.
Miller, H. (2016). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology. New York: Sage.
Reber, R. (2019). Psychology: The Basics. London: Taylor & Francis.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]