Meaningful peer relationships are developmentally important for adolescents and young adults. Yet trauma histories and stigma around mental illness can impede connection for marginalized youth living with mental health challenges. This study was grounded in relational-cultural theory, which posits that relationships characterized by authenticity and supported vulnerability foster growth; however, in the absence of support for vulnerability, people are likely to relate inauthentically. This qualitative study explored how young people living with mental health challenges navigated issues of authenticity, shame, and vulnerability in peer relationships. As part of a broader feasibility study of an intervention providing services to youth living with mental illness, in-depth interviews were conducted with 11 young women, ages 17–20. Participants were ethnically diverse, primarily low-income, and most had histories of child maltreatment. Interviews focused on participants’ peer relationships, and were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. Coders analyzed transcripts using thematic analysis and interpreted results using relational-cultural theory. While nearly all participants identified a friend or romantic partner as a significant peer, their experiences within these relationships varied considerably. These are described as a continuum of authenticity, along which participants varied in their experiences of supported vulnerability, feelings of shame, and willingness to represent themselves authentically in these relationships. Some participants who lived with mental health challenges and histories of trauma experienced close, supportive relationships with friends and intimate partners. The ability of marginalized youth to navigate issues of authenticity, vulnerability, shame and stigma in their peer relationships is a worthwhile focus for both practitioners and researchers.
- Marginalized youth
- Peer relationships