Mental illness is today regarded as a widespread health challenge around the world. Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that around one in four people suffers from a mental illness during some point in their lives.1 According to the Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in the US alone, 18.5 percent experience a form of mental illness. In comparison, 4.2 percent experienced a type of severe mental illness.2
Influence of Environmental Factors on Mental Health
Mental illness produces some of the most challenging health issues in society, accounting for a huge number of hospitalizations, disabilities that result in billions of dollars in lost productivity, and a sharply high risk for suicide.3 While there is still a lot that researchers and clinical psychologists do not understand about mental illness, but one common factor that has been deduced is that these conditions are multi-causal and complex. While many tend to assume that mental illness has a genetic factor and runs in families, but the truth is that though genetics may play a part in it, there is a combination of factors that are believed to cause mental health illnesses. A person’s environment and lifestyle are also considered to play a significant role in this.
The environment we live in and work in makes up a part of the greater context of our lives, which is now considered to be vital to treating any type of mental health condition. There are many types of environmental factors that affect your mental health. Here’s a run-through of some examples.
There are many examples of environmental stressors that have a significant influence on mental health. Over a period, these stressors can create a strain that is likely to develop into or contribute to a diagnosable mental disorder.4,5 One such example is the death of a loved one. The sudden loss of a loved one can act as a trigger for various mental disorders, including panic disorder, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many phobias in people who have no previous history of mental illness.6
There is also evidence to show that there is also an association between the breakup of relationships and/or a divorce and the onset of mental illness.7 However, research has found that the risk of certain mental health problems happening due to breakups and/or divorce is higher in some people and not for others. For example, a 2014 study found that people who were already depressed before a divorce or separation experienced a much greater rate of depression after the divorce/separation. However, people who were not depressed before a divorce/separation did not experience any increase in the risk of developing a major depressive disorder after the divorce/separation.8
Here are some of the other environmental factors that have an influence on mental health.
- Environmental Pollution: A recent study carried out by the University of Chicago has found that there is a strong association between exposure to environmental pollution and the prevalence of various neuropsychiatric disorders.12 The study analyzed large population data sets from both Denmark and the United States and found that poor air quality was linked with an increased rate of major depression and bipolar disorder in both the countries. However, there is thus far insufficient proof to show that air pollution alone causes mental health illness. However, increasing neurobiological evidence points to nervous system pathology linked with many components of air pollution.13 Animal studies have shown that exposure to air pollutants like PM 2.5 and O3 can cause damage to the neurovascular unity. This causes a neuroinflammatory response in the body, which is believed to contribute to psychiatric symptoms.14,15
- Sleep Deprivation: There is a strong connection between sleep and mental health. Continuous sleep deprivation has an impact on your mental health and psychological state. Furthermore, people who already have some form of mental health issues are more prone to experience insomnia and other sleep disorders, which aggravates their condition. Sleep disruption has a direct effect on the levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones in the body. This wreaks havoc inside the brain, impairing a person’s emotional and thinking regulation. This is also how insomnia amplifies the effects of an existing psychiatric disorder.16
- Hazardous Working Condition: The term ‘hazardous’ does not only refer to physical danger where the work profile is concerned. It refers to any type of working condition that puts a significant amount of strain on the body and the mind. If you have a stressful work environment, your mental health may suffer, and you are at a higher risk of developing mental illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety are two of the most common mental health problems caused by a hostile working environment. Depression and anxiety are also known to have a major economic impact, costing US$ 1 trillion in lost productivity to the global economy.17
Some of the risks to mental health in a hazardous work environment include:
- Poor or inadequate communication and management practices
- Insufficient health and safety policies
- Low level or lack of support for employees
- Limited participation in decision-making for own’s work
- Inflexible working hours
- Unclear tasks or organizations objectives leading to confusion
- Smoking: New research published in November 2019 has shown that smoking may not only cause damage to your physical health, but it also increases the likelihood of developing various mental illnesses.18 The study found that smokers had an almost double risk of developing schizophrenia or depression as compared to people who don’t smoke. On the other hand, another study was done in May 2019 also found that people with schizophrenia and depression are three times more likely to smoke as compared to people who do not have any mental illness.19 People who decide to quit smoking get a real boost in their confidence levels and also feel like they have achieved something great, thus boosting their self-confidence. Quitting smoking also improves their hygiene and appearance, as the stained teeth and fingers, and the constant smell of smoke disappears. It has been observed that people who quit smoking may need to take a lower dose of their antipsychotic medication.
- Extreme Weather Conditions: Extreme or bad weather can be a cause of immense stress and, over time, can wear down a person. If you are always cold, battling against snow, sweltering, struggling over ice, or drenched in sweat every time you step out of the house, your mental health experiences severe strain. This is especially true if this type of extreme weather endangers your life, your loved ones, or your property.
Some other factors that are also considered to be environmental triggers for mental health conditions are as follows:
- Stigma: If a person faces stigma such as sexism, racism, homophobia, or other forms of prejudice in a day-to-day life, it is known to significantly increase their risk of developing mental illness.
- Discord: Violence and strife in one’s community or home can be a huge cause of stress, depression, anxiety, and may even lead to conditions such as PTSD.
- Abuse: Any form of abuse, be it emotional, physical, or sexual, including domestic violence or bullying at school or in the community, can lead to significant stress, thus leading to mental illness.
- Poverty: Poverty can also affect your mental health in many ways. It restricts a person’s access to the type of nutritious diet that helps boost your mental health. It makes it more challenging to get good jobs and other opportunities to move ahead in life. All this causes stress, frustration, and a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. It also leads to the constant stress of working about where your next meal or rent money is going to come from. It often also forces people to venture into unhealthy or hazardous working environments.
- Toxic relationships: Toxic relationships can lower a person’s self-esteem, cause anxiety, increase irritability, and may cause depression. Being in a toxic relationship may even give rise to conditions like PTSD.
Environmental factors may have a profound impact on your mental health, though there may also be many other factors involved. For example, if a person already has depression or an issue with substance abuse, then over time, it can lead to poor nutrition, poverty, and many other associated environmental troubles. This may lead to a worsening of their mental health condition.
Your mental health and well-being need a good balance of physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual health. Although mental illness does have a genetic component attached to it, a wide variety of triggers like economic, social, physical, and environmental influences can contribute to the development of a mental health disorder. All these factors have to be taken into consideration by a psychologist to effectively diagnose and treat different types of mental disorders.
- Who.int. 2020. WHO | Mental Disorders Affect One In Four People. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/> [Accessed 2 October 2020].
- Claudepeppercenter.fsu.edu. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://claudepeppercenter.fsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Environmental-and-Economic-Factors-Associated-with-Mental-Illness-Manuscript.pdf> [Accessed 2 October 2020].
- Schmidt, C.W., 2007. Environmental connections: a deeper look into mental illness.
- Kessler, R.C., Heeringa, S., Lakoma, M.D., Petukhova, M., Rupp, A.E., Schoenbaum, M., Wang, P.S. and Zaslavsky, A.M., 2008. Individual and societal effects of mental disorders on earnings in the United States: results from the national comorbidity survey replication. American Journal of Psychiatry, 165(6), pp.703-711.
- Kendler, K.S., Hettema, J.M., Butera, F., Gardner, C.O. and Prescott, C.A., 2003. Life event dimensions of loss, humiliation, entrapment, and danger in the prediction of onsets of major depression and generalized anxiety. Archives of general psychiatry, 60(8), pp.789-796.
- Keyes, K.M., Pratt, C., Galea, S., McLaughlin, K.A., Koenen, K.C. and Shear, M.K., 2014. The burden of loss: unexpected death of a loved one and psychiatric disorders across the life course in a national study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171(8), pp.864-871.
- Lorenz, F.O., Wickrama, K.A.S., Conger, R.D. and Elder Jr, G.H., 2006. The short-term and decade-long effects of divorce on women’s midlife health. Journal of health and social behavior, 47(2), pp.111-125.
- Sbarra, D.A., Emery, R.E., Beam, C.R. and Ocker, B.L., 2014. Marital dissolution and major depression in midlife: A propensity score analysis. Clinical Psychological Science, 2(3), pp.249-257.
- Singh, S.P., Winsper, C., Wolke, D. and Bryson, A., 2014. School mobility and prospective pathways to psychotic-like symptoms in early adolescence: a prospective birth cohort study. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 53(5), pp.518-527.
- Price, R.H., Choi, J.N. and Vinokur, A.D., 2002. Links in the chain of adversity following job loss: how financial strain and loss of personal control lead to depression, impaired functioning, and poor health. Journal of occupational health psychology, 7(4), p.302.
- Hudson, C.G., 2005. Socioeconomic status and mental illness: tests of the social causation and selection hypotheses. American journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75(1), pp.3-18.
- Khan, A., Plana-Ripoll, O., Antonsen, S., Brandt, J., Geels, C., Landecker, H., Sullivan, P.F., Pedersen, C.B. and Rzhetsky, A., 2019. Environmental pollution is associated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders in the US and Denmark. PLoS biology, 17(8), p.e3000353.
- Bandyopadhyay, A., 2016. Neurological disorders from ambient (urban) air pollution emphasizing UFPM and PM 2.5. Current Pollution Reports, 2(3), pp.203-211.
- Block, M.L. and Calderón-Garcidueñas, L., 2009. Air pollution: mechanisms of neuroinflammation and CNS disease. Trends in neurosciences, 32(9), pp.506-516.
- Miller, A.H. and Raison, C.L., 2016. The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target. Nature reviews immunology, 16(1), p.22.
- Ohayon, M.M., 1997. Prevalence of DSM-IV diagnostic criteria of insomnia: distinguishing insomnia related to mental disorders from sleep disorders. Journal of psychiatric research, 31(3), pp.333-346.
- World Health Organization. 2020. Mental Health In The Workplace. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/> [Accessed 2 October 2020].
- Wootton, R.E., Richmond, R.C., Stuijfzand, B.G., Lawn, R.B., Sallis, H.M., Taylor, G.M., Hemani, G., Jones, H.J., Zammit, S., Smith, G.D. and Munafò, M.R., 2019. Evidence for causal effects of lifetime smoking on risk for depression and schizophrenia: a Mendelian randomisation study. Psychological Medicine, pp.1-9.
- Clinicalkey.com. 2020. Clinicalkey. [online] Available at: <https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S2215036619300471> [Accessed 2 October 2020].
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