Good mental health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. Notice that by this definition, a person with a mental illness such as depression or anxiety could still be considered to be in good mental health once they are managing their illness effectively. Unfortunately however, many individuals who develop mental illnesses fall into poor mental health. On an individual level, poor mental health can lead to extremely unsatisfying and troubled lives and on a wider societal level, poor mental health can place extreme pressures on health and social systems alike.
The process of how an individual develops poor mental is becoming increasingly more understood. The majority of psychologists and mental health professionals agree that for most disorders, a dynamic interaction between biological, psychological and social factors contributes to that disorder’s development. While biological and psychological factors such as inherited genes and personality are often unavoidable, social factors such as the environment that an individual grows up in, certainly can be. For some time now, the conversation on mental health has focused on the former two issues, when perhaps the most easily manipulated factor, social, has been largely overlooked. While we understand that our social environment influences our mental health, little responsibility is being taken to help buffer the negative effects that this factor can have on an individual’s mental health.
Mental health services have long been fragmented and under-resourced but are still viewed as the solution of choice for a growing population with mental health difficulties. While mental health services are an entirely vital component in the discussion of mental health, the issue has been so depoliticised that the focus of the conversation remains here and avoids acknowledging the preventative power that political powers could have on mental health difficulties in the first place. Given that rates of mental illness are disproportionately higher in groups of lower socioeconomic status, the influence of social factors in contributing to poor mental illness is undeniable. Individuals with lower SES are subject to a host of environmental stressors that those better off are not. Such stressors that can include risk of violence, lack of access to education, and financial instability can be avoidable with the aid of political action.
While poor mental health is an unfortunate reality for many, there is significant potential to actively combat mental illness on a wider scale if social issues can be tackled effectively. This would involve governments and society as a whole moving away from the overly medicalised discussion of mental health towards a more honest one that accepts responsibility for the prominence of social issues in contributing to problems in this area. By accepting this responsibility, such bodies could move towards a more preventative and less reactive frame of mind when it comes to mental health. The time has come for mental health to be seriously considered as as much a social and political issue as it is a biological and psychological one. By doing this, the shape of modern mental health could change drastically for the better.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.