When young people dress according to the customs of their own ethnic group, they may be less likely to have mental health problems later in life, according to research in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a BMJ Specialist journal.

Adolescents are especially prone to mental health problems, and often, their identities are displayed in clothing and in their choices of friends. As a result, it is valuable to understand how this clothing and kinship can influence mental health status.

These findings were based on an investigation of approximately 1,000 white British and Bangladeshi students between the ages of 11 and 14 in schoos in East London. These schools display some of the highest levels of population diversity in the United Kingdom. The pupils were asked about their culture, social life, and health in 2001. Then, two years later, they were surveyed again with a focus on mental health.

Having friends from their own and other cultures, called integrated friendships, or having friends exclusively with the same culture made no difference in the mental health of the student. However, clothing choices did: those Bangladeshi students who wore traditional clothing were less likely to have problems with their mental health than those whose dress tended to mid traditional styles with British/North American tastes. In comparing the genders, females in particular showed this association. The white British pupils who wore a mixture still enjoyed relatively good mental health.

The authors state that cultural integration is generally the healthiest option for young people confronted with today’s increasingly multicultural society. However, social pressures towards changes in lifestyle, attitudes, or behaviors can cause added stress. They conclude from this study that retaining cultural identity through clothing in particular may be an important way to contribute to better mental health of adolescents.

Cultural identity, clothing and common mental disorder: a prospective school-based study of white British and Bangladeshi adolescents
K Bhui, Y Khatib, R Viner, E Klineberg, C Clark, J Head, S Stansfeld
Epidemiol Community Health 2008; 62: 435-441.
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Written by Anna Sophia McKenney