What Factors Impact Our Mental Health?
For those of us who struggle with a mental health challenge, understanding what’s behind our particular struggle can be complex. There are so many factors that have an impact on our mental health, including genetics, family history, childhood experiences — and even big societal issues like violence, discrimination or poverty. And how those factors affect us can change over time.
While some of these factors can’t be easily changed or addressed — like a genetic predisposition towards a mental health issue – it can help to understand underlying issues that contribute to challenges we’re currently facing. And for underlying causes that are within our control to address or change, it’s helpful to understand them and see we can play a more active role in taking care of our mental health.
Nature and Nurture
It’s the classic “nature vs. nurture” argument: Is our mental health shaped by our genes, or as a result of our choices and experiences? In reality, much like our physical health, science tells us that our mental health is influenced by both our biology and our life experiences.
Genetics and Family History Shape Our Mental Health Early
Biology and family history do play an important role in our mental health over the course of our lives. People can be genetically predisposed to mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. If someone in our family has struggled with one or more mental health challenges, like depression or anxiety, it may increase the likelihood that we will struggle too.
Family history isn’t just about genetics. Our family typically models for us how to handle stress. Watching how people close to us manage (or avoid) emotions and emotionally charged situations can shape our own responses, sometimes well before we are aware of it! For example, we might grow up in a family where people aren’t open about the mental health challenges they’ve experienced — or we’re taught not to complain when we are struggling with our mental health.
These outlooks and behaviors that we learn from our families can shape how we cope with stress and how proactive we are about addressing mental health struggles. Research has shown that learning self-care techniques and healthy coping mechanisms early on may lessen the impact of mental health challenges later in life.
How Our Environment Shapes Our Mental Health
Nurture goes beyond the way our families care for us when we’re young. It includes every aspect of our environment, from where we live to the cultural message we receive; from the friends we make to how we stay connected to them; from stressors in our everyday lives to major societal issues. All of these can impact our mental health.
Our Early Conditions are Critical
Our family plays a powerful role in shaping our environment during our childhoods. When traumatic things happen to us, our families, or our communities – especially in our early or teenage years — they can shape how we see the world, how we respond to stress, and whether we have the chance to thrive. For example, growing up in a chaotic household, in an unsafe neighborhood or being exposed to chronic discrimination can lead to stress that impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally later in life.
Our Support Network: Quality Over Quantity
Our ability to respond to the challenges of daily life is also influenced by having people around us who we can rely on as a support network. Research shows that a strong support network — or even having at least one person with whom we can share your feelings openly, without fear of judgment — protects our mental (and physical!) health.
In today’s social media-driven world, many people equate having a “network” with having a large number of followers. But most of these relationships are not strong enough to support us through difficult times. It’s important to focus on growing meaningful relationships with people with whom we feel like we can be our true selves.
Our Society: Global Issues, Personal Impact
Big societal and global issues can have a real impact on our mental health and well-being. The more chaos, instability, violence, discrimination or division we experience, the harder it is to maintain positive mental health.
For example, research shows that exposure to climate-related natural disasters, like floods and wildfires, can lead to mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What’s more, large-scale social issues that influence mental health are often compounded — the same research shows those who are at higher risk for experiencing mental health challenges after a natural disaster include people who are disadvantaged by their economic circumstances.
Our Identity: How Societal Problems Affect Us Differently
Social and political issues can have different effects on our mental health based on whether we are members of cultural or social minority groups and have experienced discrimination or prejudice.
For example, research shows that watching videos of police violence against Black Americans can impact Black people’s mental health for three months or more, compared to white respondents. Similarly, LGBTQ+ youth who are rejected by their families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who are supported by their families.
How we identify culturally can also influence the beliefs we hold about seeking help for mental health challenges. For example, research shows that Black and Indigenous people are more likely to grow up in households with a negative view of therapy or talking about their feelings.
How Can We Manage What Impacts Our Mental Health?
We can’t always change the factors that influence our mental health, but we can get support to make them more manageable. Many mental health professionals are trained to help us better understand our unique background, identity, and experiences that shape our mental health, and help us create a plan to care for well-being amidst the challenges we face.
If you are struggling with your mental health or an underlying cause of stress that you’ve read about here, text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) any time to have a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor.