Lots of factors contribute to poor mental health. Genetics, personal history, diet, and lifestyle all of these play a part. However, when trying to parse the causes of our mental health struggles, many of us fail to consider one of the biggest factors of all: the environment in which we live our day-to-day lives.
The environment we live and work in informs part of the wider context of our lives, which – as any good counselor knows - is vital to think about when treating any mental health issues. If you’re unsure how (or whether) your environment affects your mental health, we’ll quickly run through a few examples:
These 'hard' environmental factors include noise, temperature, pollutants, and so forth. Although they are often related to 'soft' factors such as social factors, they can also occur on their own.
A poor sleep cycle or sleep deprivation can be detrimental to your mental health. Many environmental factors can affect sleep cycles, but not all of them are within our control. Poor sleep could be caused by noisy neighbors, too hot or too cool nights, or creaky architecture.
Children who grow up in areas with 'dirty' air have a quadruple chance of developing depression later on in their lives. Although this risk may be due to other environmental factors (polluted regions typically combine more factors than air pollution), it is worth noting.
Conditions that could pose a danger to workers.
Hazardous working conditions can be more than just physical danger. This refers to any work environment that can cause significant stress on the body or mind. Your mental health may be affected if your workplace is stressful.
Extreme weather conditions.
Extreme weather can be stressful and can cause you to feel down. Your mental health can suffer if you are constantly cold, hot, sweltering or fighting against snow, struggling to make ice, or you get soaked to the skin whenever you go outside. Extreme weather can pose a threat to your property, family, and life.
Both active and passive smoking can be very harmful to your mental health.
It can be frustrating to not be able to move around in your environment. It can be very frustrating to be excluded from certain activities or areas, perhaps because you are physically unable to climb stairs or cross busy roads. This can lead to depression.
Social factors refer to issues within the immediate family and wider community that can impact mental health.
Experiencing stigma such as racism, sexism, homophobia, or other, perhaps more insidious forms of prejudice is known to majorly increase a person's risk of mental illness.
Conflict and violence in the household or community are major causes of anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as conditions like PTSD.
Abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional. It can include everything from domestic violence to bullying in the community to catcalling. It can be very harmful to your health if you are exposed to it often in your environment.
Poverty can have a number of negative effects on mental health. Poverty can make it difficult to access a healthy diet that is good for your mental health. It can make it difficult to find good jobs and other opportunities. This results in frustration, stress, low self-worth, and lack of self-worth. You worry about the next rent payment and it is constant stress. It often leads to unhealthy living situations.
Social support is lacking.
Humans are social animals that rely on each other. Mental health can be affected by feeling isolated, alone, or unsupported in your community.
Toxic relationships can lead to low self-esteem, increased irritability, anxiety, depression, and foster conditions such as PTSD.
Safety is lacking.
Anxiety and stress can be caused by feeling unsafe in your environment.
Some factors are more temporary than others, making it difficult to categorize them as 'social' and 'physical. Their impact should not be underestimated. Access to green spaces is a major problem. The positive effects of green spaces and other natural beauty on mental health are enormous. Concrete jungles can prevent you from enjoying the mental benefits of fresh air and green leaves.
Low levels of visual stimulation. Many people describe urban environments as dull or boring. People notice a noticeable change in their moods when they are exposed to more exciting (or more visually pleasing) environments. Uninspiring environments can be unpleasant and have a negative effect on mental health.
'Oppressive' untidiness. Untidiness can make us anxious both instinctively and personally. We are wired to be anxious about messy environments because of the potential health hazards. People living in messy environments can become anxious about how others will view them, what it will cost, and how long it will take to clean everything up.
BREAKING THE VICIOUS CYCLE
Environmental factors which affect your mental health may well be bound up with other factors. For example, depression or substance abuse can lead to unemployment, which in turn can lead to poverty, poor nutrition, and all of their associated environmental troubles.
Similarly, mental health conditions like hoarding can result in environmental problems. Often, environmental and other factors end up complementing one another in a vicious cycle.
The good news, however, is that getting help for one aspect often helps the other along. Finding a counselor who can help you to come to terms with mental health problems or affected by (and affecting) your environment can enable you to make the positive changes needed both to improve your mental health and to break out of a toxic space.