Columns / Discourse / May 3, 2017

One Mind: Looking at the environmental impact on mental illness

Last week, I talked about the role of genetics in mental health. However, genetics isn’t the only major factor that contributes to mental illness. A few conditions, such as depression, anxiety and certainly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are or can be caused by certain environmental factors, namely exposure to a stressful event. Also, certain factors, such as lead poisoning contracted in the womb or contact with certain other substances, can also cause mental health or developmental issues.

However, in addition to causing certain conditions, the environment plays more of a role in determining the severity of existing conditions. I think the best model of this is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow was a humanist, a school of thought that believes in unconditional positive regard and that all ills present in society, with the exception of most actual illnesses, can be attributed to a deprivation of, or inadequate amount of basic needs or desires. For those of you who prefer a hands-on, or more visual approach, I recommend playing any version of The Sims, since the game’s mechanics are based on Maslow’s hierarchy, though probably loosely. Notice what happens when you don’t treat your characters that well.

Some of the most prominent examples of this, unfortunately, can be seen in society. Think of pretty much every movement in existence today and the conditions that created it. Most, if not all, of those conditions can be traced back to Maslow’s Hierarchy, be it owing to a lack of food or shelter, lack of healthcare, lack of love or prevention from fulfilling greater aspirations.

Mental health, and even health in general, suffers a lot of setbacks because of violations of the Hierarchy of Needs, and since the Hierarchy tends to have a domino effect, things only get worse until these violations are addressed.

Though I can’t speak for anyone else, I encourage everyone who is in any form of underrepresented or oppressed groups, and those who are not, to see if they recognize any similarities to their own situation or a situation they have heard of, in the following example.

Henry is born with a mental health condition. Let’s say he has anxiety and depression, since those two tend to be common and often go together. Henry is born into a basically healthy household, where he receives food, water, shelter and plenty of love. Thus the most basic level of the Hierarchy is complete and possibly even part of the second. However, his parents are not immediately aware of his issues, nor does it occur to them to look into his health. They figure he is simply a sensitive kid who is very shy. After a few years, Henry goes to school, where, much like his parents, nobody notices that he has from mental health issues, or else they don’t attempt to sympathize or help so much as they stigmatize him and discriminate against him. This situation worsens if the other children in school notice Henry is somehow different. There’s a huge chance he might be bullied and mistreated even further.

As this continues, Henry’s self-esteem gets lower and his depression and anxiety get worse. This may affect his grades, his relationships with his peers and his teachers and so much more. Things can go a variety of ways from here, but most of the outcomes are not good.

That being said, humanity does have one great asset on its sideÑresilience. Let’s say that halfway through high school, Henry begins to recognize that his bouts of depression and heightened nervousness may be indicative of a mental condition. Sometime later, when he’s worked up the confidence, say in a week or two, he confronts his parents about the situation and explains what he thinks may be going on. His parents, if they are supportive, may agree with him and encourage him to seek help. A little more sure of himself, Henry tentatively visits his school’s counselor, or a non-affiliated counselor, who soon confirms that he shows a few symptoms of at least one mental health condition, but he is encouraged to seek out a psychiatrist to be officially diagnosed and better treated. Henry finds a psychiatrist, who confirms what Henry has suspected for a while, and prescribes him medication and encourages him to continue seeing a counselor. Assuming Henry follows this advice, there’s no reason he can’t go on to live a completely fulfilled life.

It’s never too late to end on a hopeful note. I encourage any of you to contact the paper if you have questions or comments about this column, or just wish to tell your own stories.

Tony Rogde-Hinderliter

Tags:  column discourse environment mental illness one mind

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