Participation in Leisure Activities: Is It a Protective Factor for Women's Mental Health?

Article excerpt

The hypothesis that participation in leisure activities is a protective factor for women's mental health was evaluated in a community-based cross-sectional study of a poor neighborhood in the city of Salvador, Brazil. Female adult workers (n = 552) were interviewed from 470 randomly selected families. Participation in leisure activities is defined as any reported engagement in leisure activities during days off in the month preceding the interview. Scores from a validated mental morbidity instrument were used to assess symptoms of anxiety and depression. A negative association between participation in leisure activities and several anxiety/depression symptoms was found among women reporting no job satisfaction and low family income (Prevalence Ratio = 0.27; 95% Confidence Interval from 0.09 to 0.88). Participation in leisure activities may help maintain mental health under adverse life conditions.

KEYWORDS: Leisure, mental health, women, protective factors

Introduction

One the major challenges facing public health policies is the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental illness. These actions require the identification not only of major determinants and modifiable risk factors, but also of less known protective factors. Social and emotional support from friends, church and family has been described as beneficial for both general and mental health (Varon & Riley, 1999; Jacomb et al., 1999; Pratt, 1991). A recent body of research has pointed out the benefits of leisure for health and well being using several outcome variables, such as quality of life, life satisfaction and mental "problems" that run from mere stress to psychological symptoms to psychiatric illnesses. Among aging individuals, for instance, life satisfaction was positively associated with participation in leisure activities (Hersch, 1990; Patterson & Carpenter, 1994) and with an increased variety of leisure activities (Bevil et al, 1993). Among women attending groups of mothers, positive associa tions between time spent in leisure activities and indices of mental health or life satisfaction were also found (Wearing, 1989). Also, poor obese women who engaged in leisure activities reported increased self-esteem (Dattilo et al., 1994). University students who reported participation in leisure activities were more likely to experience decreased academic stress than those who did not perform leisure activities (Ragheb & Mckinney, 1993). Although there are few studies of the possible beneficial effects of leisure for mental health in the general population, their findings are consistent with those reported for special groups. For example, participation in leisure activities in a metropolitan area was correlated with reports of a high quality of life (Jeffres & Dobos, 1993). In a longitudinal study, leisure activities performed with family members and other social groups were predictors of good mood (Stone, 1987).

Most research findings support the hypothesis that leisure acts as a buffer against the adverse effects of psychosocial stressors (Wheeler & Frank, 1981; Reich & Zautra, 1981; Caltabiano, 1995). Leisure, when characterized as perceived freedom, appears to reduce stress, although in Coleman's (1993) study, social support was not found to act as a stress buffer. These findings were not consistent with those reported by Iso-Ahola & Park (1996), however, who showed that social support, represented by leisure activities performed in the company of others, moderates the effects of stress on mental health. These two studies were performed in distinct populations, however, which may lead to incompatible goals and expectations regarding the choice of leisure activities that are best suited for a given population.

In sum, a number of studies have supported the notion that leisure has beneficial effects for mental health. These effects manifest themselves through direct improvements in the quality of one's life and are usually defined as increased good mood (Mannell, 1980; Hull, 1990), happiness and enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFever, 1989). …