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REGISTER Representing the interest of 14 IPA’s, throughout South Africa

Environment & Your Mental Health

When talking about environment, reference is being made to where an individual finds themselves, like at work or at home. Environment is significant when considering mental health problems, because it can be a major source of stress and anxiety.

Since most people have homes, jobs, and relationships, it’s not so much that these environments are stressful, but rather how that stress is managed (or not managed) by each individual. The important thing about environmental stressors, is that they are chronic, which basically means they’re not something an individual can rid themselves of in a bid to maintain good mental health. The responsibility lies with each individual to adequately adapt to changes and events within their environment, and properly manage any stress that it may cause. Environmental stress negatively affects mental health when an individual is unable to adapt, and lacks the coping mechanisms required for dealing with stress in a healthy way.

The Home Environment

In an article by Professor Michael Rutter, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the Institute of Psychiatry at London’s SGDP Research Centre, it states that there are three main areas of risk associated with the effects of stress in the home environment – family conflictfamily dynamics (how parents and children affect each other), and genetics. Professor Rutter is a mental health specialist who has made notable contributions to the mental health society through his extensive research on the topic, and provides eye-opening truths about what exactly in the home environment impacts mental health.
For instance, studies showed that family conflict and discord within a family unit could be more detrimental to mental health than divorce breaking up a family. It is the same reasoning that places impaired parenting above losing a parent as a more stressful situation, negatively impacting the mental wellbeing of a child. And as parents hold a significant influence over the mental state of their children, so too do children over their parents. Studies have found that a difficult child can affect the entire dynamic of a family, and greatly influences mental wellbeing. The third, and possibly most surprising, finding Professor Rutter presents, is the one of genetic influence on an individual’s mental state. It is argued that a person is either genetically vulnerable or resilient in the face of environmental stress. This can be seen in the way the same stressful situations end up affecting two people differently. One might fold with the inability to manage the stress, succumbing to symptoms of depression and anxiety, and another might manage the stress in a healthy way, coming out stronger and more confident for having dealt with and lived through the situation.

The Work Environment

During those 40 – 50 hours, the physical environment plays an important role in mood, productivity, concentration, and even general physical health. Studies have shown that employees in good working conditions tend to be more effective than employees of the same caliber, but in poorer conditions.
Everything about the physical conditions should be taken into account, even the basic layout and design of the office floor. Research has shown that although open-plan offices are currently the trend, and a sign of younger, more forward-thinking companies, the setup has negative effects on the concentration of employees. It also reduces their creativity, productivity, and job satisfaction. This is because of an open office being ideal for unplanned social interactions that distract employees from work, which eventually leads to increased stress levels. So even though private offices and cubicles are considered old-form, the traditional setup has been proven to reduce distraction and halt underperformance, thereby reducing levels of stress and dissatisfaction at work.
Aside from office space layout, art influences people’s moods as well. Peaceful landscapes and nature scenes have a positive emotional impact on employees, working to relieve stress. The amount of light in the workplace is important as well. Offices with more natural light through windows have employees who sleep considerably better than those who work in dark spaces.

Natural Conditions

Studies have been made that prove the close relationship between the weather and people’s mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs during the colder seasons of autumn and winter. In the warmer months, all symptoms of the disorder seem to go away. The other side of this coin is that, although sunlight lifts the mood, too much heat and humidity can lead to increased stress levels, and might even bring on episodes of aggression. Changes in wind in certain locations, like North Africa and Israel have been attributed to rising levels of depression and anxiety. The common factor in these weather influences – sunshinetemperature, and wind – is barometric pressure, where lower pressure negatively impacts mental health. Extreme forms of weather – natural disasters – are particularly traumatic and stressful events, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, and increased levels of anxiety, fear, and depression.

Social Conditions

Social conditions as part of an individual’s environment that impacts mental health are made up of direct actions as well as the perceived intentions of people. Things like overcrowdingcrimenoise levels, and basic living conditions all affect a person’s mental state. In cities where crime is more prevalent, people experience raised levels of stress, anxiety, and fear compared to those living in peaceful environments.

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