Understanding Mental Health Related Factors and High-Risk Behaviors among Emerging Adults through the Lens of the Social-Ecological Model

Sheralyn Sarah Sanchez, University of Texas at El Paso


Emerging adulthood is a transitional period where young adults are faced with new challenges while exploring their identity and experimenting with life choices. However, during this time, young adults are more at risk of engaging in risky behaviors. The focus on emerging adults is important since the health and development of young adults can influence their health and life outcomes. The social-ecological model was used to understand the relationship between mental health and high-risk behaviors, in addition to the influence from different ecological factors (individual, relationship, and community). This study examined the relationship between the presence of mental health issues and high-risk behaviors (e.g., substance use, high-risk sexual behavior, and criminal behavior) among emerging adults using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) dataset. Secondary data analyses were performed on Wave II and Wave III of the Add Health dataset. This dissertation conducted descriptive analyses and logistic regression analyses. Three studies each created models using high-risk behaviors as the dependent variables and mental health factors as the independent variables while controlling for other social-ecological factors. The odds ratios (OR) and 95% confidence interval (CI) were reported with the p values. To account for the complex survey sampling design, the proper weights found in the dataset were used to produce unbiased parameter estimates for the emerging adult population in the U.S. Through three studies, risk and protective factors that influenced emerging adults’ engagement in high-risk behaviors were identified. The findings suggested that mental health status was associated with illegal drug use and was influenced by other demographic and relationship factors; however, factors influencing binge drinking were not the same as those influencing illegal drug use. Mental health plays a critical role in understanding high-risk sexual behaviors. This study found that having suicidal thoughts increased specific high-risk behaviors while being satisfied with life increased positive sexual health behaviors. Adverse mental health factors increased the probability of engaging in criminal behaviors. However, this study also found that emerging adults satisfied with life were less likely to engage in criminal behavior than their reference group. The findings from these studies will benefit future researchers as they develop programs or interventions to limit engagement in high-risk behaviors for future generations.

Subject Area

Health sciences|Developmental psychology|Sexuality|Mental health|Criminology|Public health

Recommended Citation

Sanchez, Sheralyn Sarah, "Understanding Mental Health Related Factors and High-Risk Behaviors among Emerging Adults through the Lens of the Social-Ecological Model" (2022). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI29069246.