Lots of factors contribute to poor mental health. Genetics, personal history, diet, 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 forms part of the wider context of our lives, which – as any good counsellor 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:
Physical environmental factors are ‘hard’ factors which come from things like noise, temperatures, pollutants and so on. They’re often linked to ‘soft’ social factors, but can occur independently.
- Sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation or an unhealthy sleep cycle is known to be bad for your mental health. There are plenty of environmental factors which could affect sleep cycles – not all of which are within our control. Noisy neighbours, a loud road nearby, nights which are too hot or too cold, creaky architecture…all of these and more could contribute to poor sleep, and therefore a downturn in mental health.
- Environmental pollution. Growing up around ‘dirty air’ quadruples a child’s chance of developing depression later in life. This may be related to other environmental factors (polluted areas typically combine more of the factors on this list than just air pollution), but the risk is still worth noted.
- Hazardous working conditions. ‘Hazardous’ can refer not just to physical danger where work is concerned. It refers to any working condition which can put significant strain on body and/or mind. If your work environment is stressful, your mental health can suffer.
- Extreme weather conditions. Bad or extreme weather is stressful and it can wear your down. If you’re perpetually cold, sweltering, battling against snow, struggling over ice, or drenched to the skin every time you step outside, your mental health will experience a toll. This is particularly the case if extreme weather endangers your life, your family, your loved ones, or your property.
- Smoking. Both passive and active smoking are very bad for your mental health.
- Inaccessible architecture. Being unable to move easily around your environment is very frustrating. If you’re excluded from certain areas or activities (perhaps due to being physically unable to do things like climb stairs or cross busy roads), the frustration and isolation of this can contribute to mental illness.
Social factors are issues in the immediate family or wider community which can have an impact upon mental health.
- Stigma. 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.
- Discord. Strife and violence in the home or the community is a big cause of anxiety, stress, depression, and even conditions like PTSD.
- Abuse. Abuse - physical, sexual, or emotional – can encompass anything from domestic violence to bullying within the community to catcalling. Experiencing it regularly within your environment can be very bad for you.
- Poverty. Poverty attacks mental health from a great many angles. It can restrict access to the kind of nutritious diet which benefits mental health. It can make it harder to get good jobs or other opportunities, which results in frustration, stress, and a lack of self-worth. It brings the constant stress of worrying about where the next rent payment will come from. And it often forces people into unhealthy environments
- Lack of social support. Humans are social animals, designed to rely on one another. Feeling ostracised, or alone, or otherwise unsupported within your community has a major impact upon mental health.
- Toxic relationships. Toxic relationships can lower self-esteem, increase irritability, cause anxiety, contribute to depression, and even foster conditions like PTSD.
- Lack of safety. Feeling unsafe in your environment will bring with it a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Some factors are a bit more ephemeral – not as easy to classify neatly as ‘social’ or ‘physical’. However, their impact should not be underestimated.
- Lack of access to green spaces. Access to green or naturally beautiful spaces has a massively positive impact upon mental health. To be trapped within concrete jungles means never getting the mental benefits of fresh air, green leaves and so on.
- Lack of visual stimulation. People often describe certain urban environments as ‘bland’ or ‘dull’. It’s noticeable that people perk up to the extent that their moods visibly lift when they enter more interesting (or perhaps more aesthetically pleasing) environments. Being within a ‘bland’, uninspiring environment is unpleasant, and may have a negative impact upon mental health.
- ‘Oppressive’ untidiness. Untidiness makes us anxious on an instinctive and on a personal level. Instinctively, we are programmed to have a degree of anxiety about mess due to the health hazard it may present. Personally, people in messy environments may become anxious about what others may think of their living conditions, the time it will take to clean up, and so on.
BREAKING THE VICIOUS CYCLE
Environmental factors which affect your mental health may well be bound up in 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 complimenting one another in a vicious cycle.
The good news, however, is that getting help for the one aspect often helps the other along. Finding a counsellor 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.