The quality of your mental health can be affected by a wide range of factors in your life. These factors can impact your mental health in positive or negative ways, with some increasing your risk of having mental health difficulties, and others decreasing your risk of having mental health difficulties. Some factors can be psychological, including your self-esteem and how well you cope with stress, while other factors can be experiences like traumatic life events. Another factor which can shape your mental health is your social environment.
What is a social environment?
Your social environment includes the conditions in which you are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems that shape the conditions of your daily life. Your social environment is made up of many elements including your family, the groups you belong to, your neighbourhood, government policies, and social norms. Your social environment is important because it can provide resources that support your overall quality of life, including your mental health. If you experience disadvantage in any area of your social environment, it can make it harder to achieve positive mental health because you cannot get the resources you need.
What is social inequality?
Not everyone in society has equal access to the resources that they need to be able to live happy and healthy lives. When a resource within society is shared unevenly or unfairly, this is called a social inequality. Social inequalities often follow patterns that can be traced back to how people are grouped together in society. This means that you can be more or less likely to experience disadvantage based on things like your ethnicity, ability, appearance, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, socio economic group and more. Experiencing social inequalities increases your risk of many common mental health conditions. People with mental health conditions who are experiencing social inequalities are also more likely to experience more negative consequences from their condition.
Social factors that can impact your mental health
Any experience where you are seen or treated as less-than, or have less access to fulfilling your basic needs, poses a challenge to your mental health. Below is a list of some of the most common social factors that can impact your mental health. Keep in mind that mental health is complex and your social environment is only one of many factors that can affect your health and wellbeing. While experiencing disadvantage in one or more of these areas can increase your risk of having mental health difficulties, it does not mean that you will develop a mental health condition. You can also develop a mental health condition without experiencing social disadvantage.
Income and employment
Your household income and employment status can have an impact on your mental health. People living in financial hardship have a greater risk of mental health problems and lower mental wellbeing. Having low income and dealing with unemployment or unstable employment can be highly stressful and can lead to poverty. Living in poverty means you do not have access to enough money and financial resources to afford a minimum standard of living. This means you cannot afford to pay for essentials like food, healthcare, accommodation, heating, and clothing. The relationship between mental health and poverty can work both ways. Living in poverty can lead to mental health problems but mental health problems can also lead people into poverty due to discrimination in employment and reduced ability to work.
Your education level can affect your mental health. Research shows that having a lower level of education increases your risk of experiencing mental health problems. There are a number of reasons for the link between education and mental health. For some people, education makes it easier to access good employment opportunities and achieve life goals. Lower levels of education can make it more difficult to find employment which can lead to poverty. Some people do not have equal access to high quality education because of where they live, family income, or other living circumstances.
Where you live
The conditions of where you live can have an impact on your mental health. Living in a poorer neighbourhood can introduce a number of stressors into your life which can make it more difficult to have good mental health. Your location can make it harder to access services you need like education and healthcare. This can partly be due to a lack of available transport links. Living in an area high in crime and violence can make you feel unsafe. Some neighbourhoods may also lack essential services like community resources and good quality housing.
People who are homeless are at an increased risk of having mental health difficulties. Accessing services like health care can be more difficult if you are experiencing homelessness. It can also make it more difficult to access consistent employment. Having a secure and consistent place to live is a basic human need and not having this can pose a risk to your safety, and of course your wellbeing.
You are also more likely to experience mental health problems if you are a refugee or asylum seeker. This can partly be due to experiences you had before you migrated, like trauma from war. It can also be due to your living conditions after you migrated, like being separated from family, experiencing racism, living in direct provision, having poor housing, having difficulties with asylum procedures, or other difficulties adjusting or being accepted in a new place.
Discrimination occurs when a certain group of people are unfairly treated in a way which is worse than how other people are treated in a similar situation, on the basis of a supposed difference.
Different people experience discrimination related to many factors including their:
- Sexual Orientation
Research shows that experiencing discrimination can be a major source of stress and is linked to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. No one should ever have to experience discrimination. If you have experienced discrimination, you are not alone. There is support out there and you should not have to deal with it by yourself.
Your mental health can also be impacted by the wider environment of the country you live in.
Living in a country which is dealing with war or political instability affects your safety and can be a source of trauma. Major political change can have a negative impact on the health of entire populations. The social policies that your government put in place also have an impact on your overall health and wellbeing. Having policies that aim to reduce poverty, inequality, and discrimination, and promote human rights, healthcare, and education can all help to reduce social inequality and boost mental health and wellbeing.
What can I do about the effects of social inequality
It can be frustrating to think that your risk of having a mental health problem is influenced by circumstances beyond your control. Addressing social inequalities is not something you can do on your own. It requires society as a whole to work together to develop comprehensive strategies that can reduce inequality and improve the conditions of where we are born, grow, live, work, and age.
While experiencing disadvantage in an unequal society poses an unfair challenge to your mental health, there are also many buffers and supports which can help counteract these negative effects. Having good self-esteem, an optimistic outlook, problem solving skills, and social support from your family, friends, or wider community, can all help you to cope in the face of adversity. Understanding the factors that can impact your mental health can help you support yourself to overcome them, challenge the systems that limit you, and know that challenges to your mental health are not your fault.
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