The Role of the Environment and Mental Health: Part One

By Abigail Haller, Screening Integration Coordinator at Elder Law of Michigan

When you hear the words “mental health,” what do you think? Someone suffering from bipolar, depression, anxiety, or abuse? Although these health problems are very common among individuals who have mental health conditions, they are not the only contributing factor to a mental health condition. The environment in which we live has a larger impact than we may realize.

According to the National Counselling Society, environmental factors can be broken down into two main categories: physical and social. A combination of physical and social factors, among several other factors, can be determinants in an individual’s mental health status. In this article, we will focus on physical factors.

  • Pollution, such as unclean air and noise,
  • Extreme weather conditions,
  • Sleep disturbances, and
  • Unbalanced nutrition and other consumable products such as tobacco and alcohol.

The World Health Organization states that nine out of ten people breathe air that is highly polluted, which leads to roughly seven million deaths per year. If air pollutants are hurting our physical bodies, it is undeniable that air pollution has an impact on mental health. Individuals living in industrial cities and densely populated urban areas have a higher risk of air pollution exposure as opposed to those living in a rural setting.

Climate is another factor that can lead to mental health conditions. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common disorder among individuals who live in northern regions of the United States. People who experience SAD often have low levels of vitamin D and serotonin which are key for a balanced, functioning brain. Those individuals also have high levels of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates sleep, leaving individuals feeling tired and lethargic.

In the southern US, there is scorching heat with temperatures in the 100s. These temperatures often keep people indoors to avoid heatstroke or heat exhaustion. According to the American Psychiatric Association, extreme heat actually increases emergency room visits and admissions for people suffering from mental health conditions and even increases the risk of suicide.

It is commonly known that sleep and mental health go hand in hand. Sleep disturbances can cause mental illness, and having a mental illness can cause sleep disturbances, it is a real catch-22. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are just a few mental illnesses that can cause sleep disorders or develop due to experiencing an existing sleep disorder. There are more than 70 types of sleep disorders, with insomnia and sleep apnea the most prevalent, according to an article published by Harvard Medical School. Although it may seem tough to manage sleep at times, there are many effective treatments and lifestyle changes that can take place to improve sleep, especially if an individual can pinpoint a possible cause.

The last of a few main physical factors include unbalanced nutrition and other unhealthy consumable products. It is widely known that good health comes with proper nutrition, which has a domino effect on the rest of our well-being. When our nutrition is out of balance, there is a risk of developing a variety of health conditions. Some conditions include obesity, heart disease, type two diabetes, stroke, some cancers, and brain function deficiency. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6 in 10 people between the ages of 2 and 19, and 5 in 10 adults will consume a highly sugared drink almost every day! Sugary beverages like soda, juices from concentrate, and other sweetened beverages are loaded with large amounts of processed sugars as well as unnecessary sodium and even saturated fats.

Another unhealthy beverage many individuals consume weekly, if not daily, is alcohol. According to the Mental Health Foundation of the UK, alcohol depresses the central nervous system which can cause our moods to fluctuate. Regular consumption of alcohol changes the physical chemistry of a person’s brain over time due to a depletion of serotonin. Another way that alcohol affects the brain is sleep. The Sleep Foundation states that alcohol disrupts the circadian rhythm, REM sleep, disrupts delta wave activity, and can increase breathing problems during sleep. If you are a person who leans toward a “nightcap” to help you fall asleep, finding an alternative is highly recommended.

We have discussed a handful of the main physical factors, but there are many more that can contribute to mental health. Not only do physical factors need to be looked at, but the combination of physical factors with social factors is important to consider if we want to get the bigger picture.

Watch for part two of this article where we will focus on the core social factors that contribute to mental health.

Abigail Haller is a Screening Integration Coordinator for MiCAFE at Elder Law of Michigan. She has been a member of the Elder Law of Michigan team since October 2018. As a Screening Integration Coordinator, Abigail helps seniors in Michigan apply for benefits so they can feel comfortable with the application process.