Effect of environment on mental health

The Cambridge online dictionary defines environment as “the conditions that you live or work in and the way that they influence how you feel or how effectively you can work”. The synonyms include habitat, territory, domain, home, abode; surroundings, conditions and environs. We all know what mental health is, however for sake of understanding the relationship between environment and mental health let’s have a quick look at the definition of mental health too. The same dictionary defines mental health as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being”. So if we simply combine the two definitions in order to establish the relationship between the two we shall come up with a combination of the two definitions i.e. in this article we are attempting to find the relationship of the conditions that we live in on our psychological and emotional wellbeing.
So what do we mean by the conditions that we live in? We need to at one level appreciate and incorporate the broader concepts of society and culture in order to appreciate the overall environment on one hand and on the other hand learn in depth about the individual factors in a specific environment that effect our psychological and emotional wellbeing. A society is sometimes defined as the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community. Most of the animals in animal kingdom make and live in societies and human societies have a complete history of development since pre-historic times. Culture sometimes is defined as the personality of a society. The ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society are collectively called culture. In order to understand the psychological and emotional impact of environment on us we need to understand the broader framework that someone might be living in, what are its cultural norms and how a variety of factors collectively contribute towards development of an environment within a greater setting. According to a web resource on environmental pollution, the factors that collectively constitute an environmental are known as eco- factors or ecological factors which include light, temperature, soil, water etc. These factors may be biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living). The sum total of all these factors constitutes the environment of an organism.
In order to understand the effect of environment on mental health in general let’s pick an example of a particular mental disorder that relates to environment. “Shell Shock Syndrome” was the term used for the first time in world ward 1, when the soldiers experienced significantly high levels of stress when faced with the physical and psychological implications of war. The term Shell-Shock was coined in 1917 by a Medical Officer of UK called Charles Myers. Mental health and understanding of mental health issues were rather limited at that time and some authorities write that the presentation was considered a weakness in soldier’s character, rather a mental illness. The soldiers suffering from Shell Shock Syndrome were unable to sleep or eat and some of them continued to suffer from physical symptoms. Many of them experienced a re-living of their traumatic experiences even when war was over. The symptoms were sometimes so incapacitating that the soldiers were unable to continue their regular duties or even achieve a recovery once the war was finished. With the advancement in understanding of the mental health in general and the impact of stress on our psychological and emotional wellbeing in particular, the same condition is understood much better now and it is now called ‘Post traumatic stress disorder’, some similar conditions include ‘acute stress reaction’ or ‘combat-stress’.
There are understandable biological and molecular basis for development of condition. When we experience a stress/danger the body goes into a fight or flight response. In flight response we avoid the danger and protect ourselves by running away from it. In fight response once our body perceives the danger it immediately starts preparing us for that danger as a defence mechanism and means of survival. At a cellular level this involves release of certain hormones in our body that prepare us to fight. Two most important of those hormones are Adrenaline and Cortisol. All of these changes happening in body are not under voluntary control and are operated by a part of nervous system called autonomic nervous system, which as the same suggests works at an automatic level. For a common reader who doesn’t have much medical knowledge it would be easy to understand it by appreciating the example that our heart, lungs and other internal organs are constantly regulated and maintained by the same system that is beyond voluntary control. Although when faced with a transient danger for which a resolution is possible and achieved by the fight or flight response, the hormones and chemicals that went up to prepare us for the danger do get back to the normal baseline levels. Nevertheless if the danger continues to persist then the autonomic nervous system continues to stay in alert phase, the levels of chemicals continue to remain high and persistently high levels of chemicals in the body and brain can eventually lead to untoward effects including possible brain damage. It is through that it is this molecular mechanism and constant activation of autonomic nervous system that some of the insults and dangers in our environment lead to, resulting in development of psychological and emotional illnesses.
The environmental hazards however may not always be as evident and obvious as a flying shell from a blasting trench that may damage a soldier’s body and brain. It might be as subtle as a competitive culture in a team that we work in, in which case the high expectations of productivity may lead to an individual experiencing consistently high levels of stress that they may or may not be able to manage. In a recent study carried out in Japan it was found that there is a specific term ‘Karoshi’ that is used to describe the employees committing suicide or suffering from brain or heart problems due to long working hours. The English translation of ‘Karoshi’ would be ‘death by over work’. Karoshi has been identified in Japan since the time period that follows world war-II that involved the entire nation attempting to re-built the country’s damaged economy when the workers were expected to work committedly in exchange of permanent job roles. The paradigm worked well as Japan is now the third biggest economy in the world according to some criteria. However the problems that workers were facing started showing up and in the past the term “occupational sudden death” was used to describe the worst possible outcome i.e. death, that workers were facing that was later replaced by the term “Karoshi”. There were two cases reported of Japanese workers one is that of a worker dying of heart failure after doing 159 hours of extra hours in a month in July 2013 and the another case where a worker jumped from the roof of the company where she did 105 hours of extra hours before committing suicide in 2015. Both cases were related to work stress in follow up investigations, there of course would be some additional factors playing a role too.
In general impact of natural disasters, over-crowding, industrial pollution, noise pollution, over congestion, scarcity of resources, limited opportunities and extremes of weathers are some major factors that can contribute towards an individual’s environment in their own unique ways, that impacts on his/her mental health and may lead to psychological and emotional implications. Obviously it is not possible to have a fixed set of guidelines that may encompass all the environmental factors due to their varied nature. However there are some recommendations and suggestions in individual areas that throw some light on how to tackle or address the environmental factors that may lead to the mental health problems. For example as we discussed the role of stress at work place, there are some Scandinavian authorities that have come up with following principles to prevent stress at work.
• Working conditions are adapted to people’s differing physical and mental aptitudes
• Employee is given the opportunity to participate in the design of his/her own work situation, and in the processes of change and development affecting his/her work
• Technology, work organisation, and job content are designed so that the employee is not exposed to physical or mental strains that may lead to illness or accidents. Forms of remuneration and the distribution of working hours are taken into account
• Closely controlled or restricted work is avoided or limited
• Work should provide opportunities for variety, social contact, and cooperation as well as coherence between different working operations
• Working conditions should provide opportunities for personal and vocational development, as well as for self-determination and professional responsibility
In summary the environment plays a key role in a person’s mental wellbeing and in order to understand the impact of environment on a person’s psychological and emotional health a broad based approach needs to be considered understanding the societal and cultural norms and expectations and at the same time not ignoring the individual roles of a variety of other factors that contribute towards the experience of an individual in a particular setting that he/she is a part of. For achieving mental wellbeing it is not enough to merely appreciate such factors but an in depth insight with commitment to carry out appropriate work is also required to address the environmental difficulties that are playing a contributory role towards development of overall picture.
Dr S Shafiq
Preston. UK