The Reach of Mental Health
As we recognize the significance of mental health during mental health awareness month, it is important to recognize the extent that mental health affects our lives. Recently I wrote a post about why mental health matters, but here I want to go further and discuss how mental health reaches the different areas of our lives.
When we discuss mental health, the main focus tends to be on the effect of any conditions on the individual person. Sometimes we also discuss the effect mental health has on our relationships with immediate family members (especially spouses), but the reach of mental health goes so much further.
In the social sciences, we frequently think and talk about things from an ecological perspective, commonly referring to models such as the one by Bronfenbrenner above. These models suggest that many different factors of life (including mental health) are influenced by (and directly influence) many areas of our lives.
At the center is the individual person, who is the most obvious person to discuss when talking about mental health. We discuss ways to promote happiness, practice mindfulness, the effects of various conditions such as depression, all related to the individual. Alongside mental health, there are interactions with other factors about a person (e.g., their sex, gender, age). All of these things combine to determine how a person acts, feels, and so on, similar to what I discussed in my other post.
Outside of the individual, the next obvious people to consider are family members. Spouses are especially common in online posts, but mental health affects all members of a family. Whether it be a child who has needs that require additional attention from parents, resulting in jealousy from siblings, or a parent who is stressed and has a difficult time being fully available for their kids, mental health influences everyone in the household.
Yet, the effects are not only limited to the immediate family. Mental health (generally, not just in terms of disorders) influences how extended family members relate to one another. Who attends family holidays, and how interactions at those gatherings go, can largely depend on mental health factors. How much social support within the family any given family member has also depends on mental health. If someone is happy, agreeable, and so on, they may have more family support than others who struggle more, are unpredictable, and unfortunately need the support the most.
Due to the reach of mental health across family members, the different areas of life those family members occupy are also impacted. For example, parents who need to take a lot of time off of work due to their child having a condition that requires a lot of monitoring and care (mental or otherwise) will obviously have their work lives affected. Jobs can be harder to keep, or coworkers may change their relationships with the person to provide additional support. Either way, mental health conditions reach out to these others indirectly, and those people indirectly reach back to the person of focus.
Alongside work, mental health affects the performance of students in school. If a child has an unstable home, they will struggle to complete homework and advance academically compared to peers who live in a more enriching home. Stress can make it harder to focus, and exposure to family members who use good coping and executive functioning skills can make it easier. Hopefully at this point it is becoming clear that the links between people are continuous, reaching out to everyone in ways that have an influence. Sure, the effects diminish as they spread out further, but they are still there, and collective effects can be powerful. We'll get to that in a moment.
As we extend out further, we begin to find influences of small cultures on mental health, and vice versa. As discussed above, work and school can be affected for various family members. In each of those environments (and within a family, for that matter), there is a culture that exists. The extent to which people help one another, what various expectations there are of workers/students, and so forth are all highly prevalent and influence how each person within that environment lives. A boss who lacks adequate skills to handle workers appropriately and enforces ineffective policies will increase stress levels and reduce the mental health of coworkers, whereas a boss and coworkers who are mentally healthy can help act as sources of support and protect others in the workplace from having mental health challenges.
From the small cultures of the places we work and live in, we can expand out to the national and global cultures. Obviously, the mental health of world leaders has an impact on the inhabitants of various countries. However, less obviously (and potentially more influentially), mental health has a place that is engrained in the actual cultures. Stigma about conditions, encouraged lifestyles that can help or hurt our mental health, media attention that discusses mental health from various perspectives, and so forth are all examples of how mental health is related to the broader culture. These cultural factors influence the mental health of nearly everyone. Countries that prioritize mental health will be more likely to have inhabitants that are mentally stable and able to function well, whereas countries that have a lot of stigmas around mental health issues will indirectly push people to hide their difficulties and ultimately have worse outcomes.
Along with mental health mattering for each of us as individuals, it matters for the functioning of families, schools, companies, nations, and the world. The effects are not only about those who have mental health difficulties, but about those who are mentally healthy as well. By focusing on mental health, having good coping skills and managing the stresses of life effectively allow us to improve the quality of life for a large number of people. Sure, any single effect may be small, but they collectively build up to have a major influence.
Mental health matters to those who have disorders, but to those who do not as well. We all face challenges in life. We all are exposed to stress and need to make choices about how we handle different situations. By focusing on how to maintain mental health, just as much as improving it, we can prevent a lot of challenges for people and ensure ongoing high quality of life. We can improve the relationships among people, and help to reduce conflict.
By focusing on mental health in all of its forms, we can make the world a better place.