SA study links low language ability and poor mental health

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A study focusing on language acquisition in Khayelitsha near Cape Town has found that adolescents with low language ability have higher levels of depressive symptoms. The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

The results highlight a strong relationship between lower language ability and ADHD-type attention problems and also show a more general association between high language ability and better self-esteem in young people.

The study from researchers at the University of Bath and Stellenbosch University studied language ability and outcomes for 200 13-year-olds in Khayelitsha – a semi-urban, impoverished township outside Cape Town.

The findings mirror previous research carried out mainly in the UK and US, yet this study is one of the first to focus on the issue in the context of a low-middle income country, according to material from the University of Bath.

Lead author Dr Michelle St Clair from Bath’s Department of Psychology, said: “Children and adolescents with delayed or disordered language development are at increased risk of a number of negative outcomes, including social and emotional problems and mental health difficulties.

“Yet, in low- and middle- income countries, where risk factors for compromised language development are known to be prevalent, there is a lack of research on the association between child and adolescent language ability and mental health outcomes.

“I hope these findings raise awareness of how important good language skills are for so many different aspects of our lives. These findings highlight the importance of early parental engagement in supporting their child’s language development.”

The team suggests that more needs to be done to highlight the benefits of developing early language skills for behaviour, academic and mental health outcomes to parents in communities, such as Khayelitsha.

“This is a very simple intervention. Better awareness of how easily parents can enhance their children’s language abilities in early life may in time help to reduce behaviour problems and mental health difficulties,” added Dr St Clair.

Dr Sarah Skeen of the Institute for Life Course Health Research, Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University, explained: “Language development is central to many aspects of children’s lives. Language skills are essential for successful communication of emotions, needs and thoughts, and to maintain relationships with others.

“Language also underpins the development of a range of psychological processes, such as emotional self-regulation which in turn predicts a range of positive outcomes, including better interpersonal relationships and academic achievement.

“When children or adolescents have delayed or disordered language development, there is a long-term negative impact on their well-being. They are more likely to perform poorly at school and be unemployed as adults. They are less likely to have good social skills and tend to exhibit withdrawn behaviour. Poor language skills are linked with problems in peer relationships and difficulties with friendship development

“We need to factor this new knowledge into our education programmes and do more to ensure locally accessible support for children with reduced language ability is available, given the longer-term consequences of poorer mental health.”

 

PLOSOne

Abstract

Children and adolescents with delayed or disordered language development are at increased risk of a number of negative outcomes, including social and emotional problems and mental health difficulties.

Yet, in low- and middle- income countries, where risk factors for compromised language development are known to be prevalent, there is a lack of research on the association between child and adolescent language ability and mental health outcomes.

This study evaluates data from a cross-sectional study in Khayelitsha, a semi-urban impoverished community near Cape Town, South Africa. To measure language ability, behaviour and mental health, adolescents aged 13 (n = 200) were assessed using the Riddles subtest of the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children Version 2, the parent report Child Behaviour Checklist, and the self-report Moods and Feelings Questionnaire and the Self-Esteem Questionnaire.

We conducted univariate and multivariate analyses to determine associations between language skills, self-esteem and mental health in this group of adolescents. Poor language ability was related to a range of concurrent adverse difficulties, such as attention deficits, self-esteem problems, social withdrawal, and depressive symptoms.

Increased levels of language ability were related to better psychosocial profiles. In some cases, only individuals with a low level of language (bottom 10% of sample) were at increased risk of maladaptive outcomes. This study replicates the well-established relationship between language ability and poorer mental health found within high income countries in an upper middle-income country setting. Locally accessible support for children with reduced language ability is required, given the longer-term consequences of poorer mental health.

Authors

Michelle C St Clair, Sarah Skeen, Marguerite Marlow and Mark Tomlinson.

 

South African study highlights links between low language ability and poor mental health

Relationships between concurrent language ability and mental health outcomes in a South African sample of 13-year-olds

 


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