If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. According to the World Health Organization, over one billion people are experiencing mental health conditions. Further, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 50% of all people in the US will experience mental health symptoms in their lifetime.
There are many reasons for these struggles, and we do need to know the root causes so we can put the right intervention in place. But it’s also important to know that we have the power to impact our own mental health.
Like many health conditions, your everyday actions can impact how you feel. If you’re struggling with diabetes, and you choose to eat foods that impact your blood sugar, you have the power to control the outcome. If you have heart disease, by incorporating exercise and healthy eating in your daily life, you are impacting your outcome. Mental health is the same-- when you incorporate positive activities into your daily practice, you can improve your mental health.
There is definitely a space for formal mental health treatment through medicine or therapy. But according to research from Harvard University, an estimated 80% of all mental health challenges can be met outside of the clinical care setting. With an intentional focus on our everyday actions, the majority of us can manage our own mental health needs.
As a Doctor of Public Health and a licensed mental health counselor, I focus my efforts on the prevention of diagnosable mental health conditions. My goal is to arm everyday people with the tools to improve their own mental health and that of those in their circle. To that end, my area of expertise is in what I call the “Social Influences of Mental Health.”
The Social Influences of Mental Health are based in science, and there is extensive research that demonstrates how each influence impacts our level of happiness. Further, when we learn how to intentionally incorporate specific interventions into our lives in meaningful and productive ways, our mental health improves.
So, what are the five social influences, and how can we best use them to meet our mental health needs?
Social Connections: Research out of Berkeley demonstrates that socially connected people experience a sense of belonging to a group and feel close to other people. According to Brene Brown, social connection is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment, and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”. Being socially connected is the experience of feeling close and connected to others. It involves feeling loved, cared for, and valued, and forms the basis of our interpersonal relationships.
Social Support: The help, advice, and comfort that we receive from those with whom we have stable, positive relationships defines social support. It includes access to social networks comprised of emotional, tangible, informational, and companionship support. Social support can either be actual or perceived; it includes reciprocity, mutuality, and equality. When you have social support you can get through difficult challenges, resulting in better mental health. Research demonstrates when you have 3-5 strong supportive ties, you have better mental health.
Social Capital: Social capital is the structure of networks and collective resources within a community that individuals within that community can draw upon and that will benefit them. Social capital refers to the relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. When you feel that you have a network of support, or contribute to the support of others, you experience a sense of belonging to that community. This sense of community connection and belonging positively influences mental health.
Social Media: There are demonstrated connections between social media and mental health. Technically, the definition of social media includes the websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. Let’s be clear: there are both positive and negative aspects of social media, and it’s a communication tool that is here to stay. Because social media is so widely used, it is necessary to understand how to use this connection tool in a way that will promote better mental health, both individually and collectively.
Social Justice: Social justice is when all groups of people have the same rights, opportunities, access to resources, and benefits. Addressing social justice acknowledges that historical inequalities exist and must be remedied through specific measures. This process should be participatory, collaborative, inclusive of difference, and affirming of personal agency. Focusing efforts to understand, advocate for, and commit to creating an equitable society improves both individual, and ultimately, collective mental health. Research demonstrates that when we live in a fair and just society, a sense of safety is created which improves overall mental health.
By understanding how each of these social aspects impacts your mental health, you can begin to see the path forward. It’s important to take an audit of your life to understand your current situation (baseline) and then identify what changes need to be made in order to benefit fully from each of the influences. Take an honest look at each influence, and ask yourself how satisfied you are in this space.
In order to experience the benefit in each of the above-mentioned Social Influences of Mental Health, below are some science-based elements to incorporate. These have been identified as contributing factors to successful connection and the promotion of mental health and wellbeing.
Intentionality: It takes energy and thought to create connection. Like anything in life, when we put our attention towards something, we can create impact. Creating connections and support takes work.
Proximity (if possible): The principle of proximity states that physical and psychological nearness to others tends to increase interpersonal liking. In essence, people are more likely to form social relationships with people that are closer in proximity to them.
Connectivity: The energy that exists between people when they spend time together and share experiences. True connection requires presence and a degree of mutual dependence from the relationship.
Commonality: When individuals have shared interests and purpose with others, there is a natural connection. This connection creates an opportunity for bonding and potential future support.
Vulnerability: Making authentic connections requires uncertainty, risk, transparency, and emotional exposure. Taking that first step to connect with others and truly be who you are potentially results in building connections and support systems.
Dependability: An important aspect of support is that people are “there for you” when truly needed. This presence includes a consistent basis as well as in specific times of need. Rituals, traditions, and scheduled activities create the opportunity for accountability.
Reciprocity: The practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. We feel connected to others when they will help us as well as allow us to help them in times of need. Reciprocal relationships result in sustainable support.
Flexibility: One of the biggest challenges in making connections and building support systems is that we have expectations for when and how others should act. When we practice unconditional regard for others and generosity of spirit, this allows us to alter our expectations and meet people where they are, thus creating an opportunity for connection.
Positivity: This does not only relate to people having a positive attitude, though that certainly helps. The element of positivity relates to valuing an existing relationship, feeling cared for, and knowing you are accepted.
It’s like going to the gym-- we know it will benefit us, we just need to be disciplined to put in the time and effort. When identifying your social influence needs, it’s important to also identify your strengths and preferences. The magic happens when you use those strengths and preferences to meet your own needs; this way, the intervention will be something that you prefer to do.
Focusing on the social influences of mental health is a simple, tangible activity that we can all use every day. If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, you’re already spending time in your head. Use that time to focus your energies on something positive for yourself. Spend time figuring out how to become more socially connected, lean in on your support system, get engaged in your community, use social media in a way that benefits your mental health, or learn about acts of service that will benefit others. We all have the power to control our own mental health; now you have the tools.
To learn more about the social influences of mental health, go to collectivelyus.org or connect with us through social media.