Flourishing in a group of South African adolescents
Van Schalkwyk, Izanette
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Little is known about the prevalence and experience of psychological well-being on the upper end of the mental health continuum in South African adolescents, as it is conceptualised in the domain of positive psychology/psychofortology, and in particular from perspectives such as Keyes's (1998, 2007) model of psychosocial well-being and character strengths, as conceptualized by Peterson and Seligman (2004). It is also not yet clear how flourishing on the upper end of the mental health continuum can be facilitated in the South African context, and what the effect of such efforts would be. Previous research has shown that only a small proportion of those adolescents otherwise free of a common mental disorder are truly mentally healthy, i.e., flourishing. Studies have also shown that the absence of well-being creates further risk conditions. A major public health concern in South Africa is risk behaviour among adolescents. There is a need for effective prevention programmes aimed at reducing risk behaviour among South African adolescents, but in particular programmes to develop capacity, to build strengths and to promote flourishing, which will not only enhance the quality of life, but will also provide strengths to buffer stress and risks. Therefore, this study intended to contribute to knowledge that may help to fill this gap to some extent. This study included three sub-studies of which the results are reported in three manuscripts/ articles. The aim of the first article was to explore the psychosocial well-being of a group of South African adolescents implementing a mixed methods approach. Participants (N=665, aged 15-17 years) from three high schools completed questionnaires on psychosocial well-being, and structured interviews were conducted with 24 participants selected from various levels of functioning as established quantitatively. Quantitative findings indicate that 60% of the adolescents did not flourish psychologically, as measured on the Mental Health Continuum- iv Short Form. Adolescents experienced flourishing as characterised by features, such as purposeful living and meaning; positive relationships; and constructive coping. The absence of mental health was experienced as meaninglessness, impaired relationships, identification with dysfunctional outsiders, self-incompetence, dysfunctional behaviours, negative emotions and helplessness. The second article focused on a planned well-being strategy as a scientifically based intervention to enhance psychosocial wellness and flourishing in adolescents. The strategy facilitates psychological strengths, namely gratitude, persistence, perspective (wisdom), self-regulation, vitality, and compassion/kindness. These strengths are linked to specific facets of psychological, emotional and social well-being, as found in Keyes's model of complete well-being. The building of personal resources entails the mastering of specified skills, which have to be implemented on a daily basis. During this process the unmistakable role of habit-formation is stressed, since the acquisition of a well-lived life requires fortitude and time. Thus the well-being strategy presents a synthesis between the mere understanding of wellness and committed efforts, which will manifest in a rage of thoughts, feelings and action. The aim of the third article was to evaluate the effect of the intervention to improve levels of psychosocial well-being and flourishing in a group of secondary school learners. A mixed-method design was used. An experimental (n= 64) and control (n=49) group of learners between the ages of 15-17 years of age from a secondary school in an urban area in the Western Cape of South Africa participated. To determine the impact of the programme, measures were used such as The Mental Health Continuum-Short Form (MHC-SF) and The General Health Questionnaire (GHQ). Quantitative and qualitative evidence indicated that the well-being strategy had an important effect in specific ways to increase aspects of psychosocial wellness in adolescents, and a decrease in symptoms of ill-health in the experimental group as measured after the intervention and in particular during the follow-up assessment three months later. The main findings of the quantitative study were supported by the qualitative findings indicating that improved levels of psychosocial wellness could be cultivated with beneficial results both to individuals and to others. In addition, it was found that South African adolescents experienced flourishing as a process over time and that the upward spiral of improved functioning equipped them with skills and competence. This study has showed that in a group of South African adolescents, most could not be categorised as flourishing youth. This finding has grave implications: Apart from impaired levels of functioning, the absence of well-being could lead to the higher probability of conditions of v vulnerability. Results showed that higher levels of psychosocial wellness could be developed by means of a well-being strategy facilitating psychological strengths. The strength-focused programme encouraged positive outcomes as well as reduces negative behaviour and experiences. Such findings may have implications for capacity building, therapy and policies on health promotion from a preventative perspective. This study contributes on a practical level by providing information on the prevalence of levels of well-being in a specific group of adolescents, which may help target groups mostly in need of interventions, and it suggests content for interventions for the promotion of positive human health. The study contributes to the domain of positive psychology/psychofortology by giving evidence that the development of selected psychological strengths in adolescents may be cultivated with positive outcomes, and underscoring the theoretical assumptions of models involved. Findings have implications for policies on health and wellness promotion. Finally, recommendations for future research, and further applications were presented.
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