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The Role of Self-Concepts in Emerging Adult Depression: A Systematic Research Synthesis

Emerging adults have the highest rates of depression compared to other age groups, yet effective, developmentally appropriate interventions are scarce. A growing body of research suggests an important link exists between self-concepts and depression. To contribute to the dialogue regarding emerging adult depression, theory, and potential points of intervention, a systematic research synthesis (SRS) on the state of knowledge of the relationship between self-concepts (self-esteem, self-efficacy, locus of control, and mastery) and emerging adult depression was conducted using the vulnerability and stress process models. Three primary findings emerged: a greater breadth of work has examined self-esteem and has provided support for its relationship with depression; research on self-efficacy, mastery, and locus of control is minimal with mixed results; and self-concepts work in differential ways to impact depression. Preliminary evidence suggests interpersonal stressors have a contributing role in the relationship between self-concepts and depression. Results identify new avenues of interventions to pursue for a population at risk for depression and in need of developmentally appropriate treatment options. Emerging adulthood (ages 18–29) is a developmental period characterized by continued identity exploration and self-focus, instability, feeling in-between (i.e., neither adolescent nor adult), and optimism for the future (Arnett 2014). It is a complex, and often chaotic, period during which individuals may feel pressured to conceptualize or revise their life plan while establishing independence, and a time in which many behavioral and psychological disorders reach their peak (Arnett 2014; MacMillan 2007; Schwartz 2016). For example, emerging adulthood is marked by the highest rates of major depression in comparison to any other age group (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association 2012), and is a time in which individuals may be at a heightened risk for depression wherein certain subsets experience (1) continued depression from adolescence, or (2) late escalating depressed mood during emerging adulthood (Costello et al. 2008; Duchesne and Ratelle 2014; Wickrama and Wickrama 2010). This is also an issue growing on college campuses; in a recent report on the National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 58% of center directors reported an increase in clinical depression over the past 5 years (Gallagher 2014). Risks associated with depression are serious and include a heightened risk for suicidal ideation (Joiner 2009). Unfortunately, effective, developmentally appropriate interventions are scarce. However, a growing body of research suggests an important link exists between self-concepts and depression, indicating a possible point of intervention. Therefore, the primary aim of this study is to provide a consensus of the state of knowledge and theory of the role of self-concepts in emerging adult depression. During emerging adulthood, individuals continue to clarify their identity, specifically in regard to love and work, and often experience “turning points” (e.g., transition to college) that offer opportunities that may contribute to or refine self-concepts (Arnett 2014; Schwartz et al. 2013). Self-concepts are defined as cognitive schemas or organized knowledge structures consisting of traits, values, and memories about the self that act as personal resources (Campbell et al. 1996; Pearlin 1989). More specifically, this work focuses on the evaluative components of self-concepts. Evaluative components refer to underlying assumptions individuals hold about themselves, and about themselves in comparison to others and the world around them, that are not overtly processed (Campbell et al. 1996; Judge et al. 1997; Packer 1985). In the extant literature, four self-concepts generally fall under the evaluative umbrella: self-esteem, self-efficacy, locus of control, and mastery (e.g., Judge et al. 1997; Pearlin and Pioli 2003; Pearlin and Schooler 1978). These four self-concepts are similar in regard to their evaluative nature, yet distinct in that each self-concept focuses on a unique component of the self. The self-concepts are often examined in conjunction with one another and are occasionally treated as similar or even interchangeable constructs. Studies that have examined these self-concepts in comparison to one another, and in different combinations, have shown both shared and unique variance among the variables (e.g., Judge et al. 2002) demonstrating that they are similar or interrelated, yet distinct constructs. Self-esteem is the attitude of approval or disapproval, or overall value one places on himself or herself as a person (Harter 1990; Rosenberg 1965). An example of a statement regarding self-esteem is “I am a good person.” Self-efficacy, when seen through a global lens, is an estimate about one’s ability to cope with life’s demands or to have control over one’s response to life events (Judge et al. 1997). An example of a statement regarding self-efficacy is “I don’t handle conflict very well, I avoid it because I never know the right thing to say.” Locus of control is also an estimate of an individual’s belief about having control over life events, but specifically in that it concerns one’s confidence in controlling events, rather than confidence in one’s actions or behaviors in coping with events (Rotter 1966). An example of a statement regarding locus of control is “No matter what life throws my way, I know I’ll be able to handle it.” Mastery concerns the individual’s perception of personal agency or the sense of command one has of the forces that impact one’s life (Turner and Roszell 1994; Pearlin et al. 1981). An example of a statement regarding mastery is “there is no point in me trying to change my situation since there are forces out of my control.”
Reed-Fitzke, K. The Role of Self-Concepts in Emerging Adult Depression: A Systematic Research Synthesis. 27 1 36 - 48. 10.1007/s10804-018-09324-7.