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What Determines Our Mental Health?
Mental health is what makes or breaks a person. Having good mental health allows us to face the many adversities and obstacles in life and cope with struggles (Holland). Good mental health can make us successful and happy, thus living a fulfilling life. On the other hand, mental illnesses can lead to a decline in life and, in severe cases, even death. These disorders can be challenging to treat because of many factors that contribute to the disease. This is why it is crucial to understand all the factors contributing to mental health, both good and bad. My mental health is determined by both my genetic predispositions and my surrounding environment. There is currently no possible way to attribute the causes of one’s state of mental health to a single factor, which is the reason why the nature versus nurture debate has persisted between psychologists for such an extended period. There is no one person in charge of my mental health; instead, it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Mental health is complicated, with various illnesses that can negatively affect the way our brains and bodies function. The human mind, like our behaviors, is influenced by many different factors. To narrow it down, we can organize all the influences into two categories: nature and nurture.
Nature vs. Nurture
The age-old psychological debate of nature versus nurture seeks to determine which has a more significant influence on human behavior: nature or nurture. Nature refers to each person’s genes and hereditary factors, while nurture refers to the environmental variables each person experiences throughout the course of their lives (Cherry). As of today, there still is no definite answer as to which factor has the more significant influence on human behavior. Because of this, it is crucial to consider both sides when discussing topics like who or what is in control of my mental health. However, there are also cases in which both nature—genetics—work together with nurture—environment—to impact our mental health. There is no way to fit every single factor that causes mental illnesses, for example, into two simple categories, but it is a good way to start.
Every human has genetic predispositions that determine their vulnerabilities to specific mental health disorders. For example, research has shown that increasing numbers of depressive episodes are greater for girls than boys. This is because girls are more likely to begin going through puberty during the transition to secondary school, making the period more stressful for them (Moreh and O’Lawrence). This is one genetic predisposition that causes the female gender to be more susceptible to depressive episodes, which negatively impact one’s mental health. Though I myself do not have depression, mid-adolescent girls are still more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder than boys (Steingard). Gender is not affected by a person’s surrounding environment, making it part of the “nature” that influences humans.
In addition to gender, hereditary genetics also have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. Many individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder have a family history of a mood disorder or psychotic illness. Schizophrenia is even more influenced by heredity, as seen through studying twins and extended families in which schizophrenia is common (“Brain Facts” 80). The highest risk of schizophrenia is 65 percent, which is for those who have an identical twin that has been diagnosed with the disorder (Frothingham). Inheriting genetics from one’s parents is another genetic factor, which also falls under the “nature” category.
The complicated inner workings of the human brain also have a significant influence on mental health. More specifically, many mental illnesses are determined by what goes wrong in the brain. For example, one biochemical factor that causes schizophrenia is an imbalance of the neurotransmitter dopamine (“What Causes Schizophrenia”). This hypothesis is backed by the co-occurrence of high and low dopamine activity in schizophrenia patients, which could possibly explain the presence of negative and positive symptoms (Davis). The impact of neurotransmitters on mental illnesses gives one possible biological reason for what is in charge of our mental health. This also falls under the “nature” section of the nature versus nurture debate. The inner workings of a person’s brain are something they are born with and usually will not be affected by the environment, with the exceptions of injury and medical treatment.
From the examples listed above, it can be seen that many genetic and biological factors have impacts on our mental health. These factors, including unbalanced neurotransmitters and hereditary genetics, are not affected by the surrounding environment and, therefore, are a part of the influence of nature on humans. However, genetic factors are far from the only determinants of one’s mental health.
In addition to genetic factors, there are also many instances where a person’s surrounding environment influences their mental health. One environmental factor is poverty, with 115 studies in low-and middle-income areas reporting a 70% positive association between a variety of poverty measures and common mental disorders (“World Health”). People living in poverty lack a stable home environment, among many other things, and are therefore under more stress. As observed in people with depression, the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in their brains are smaller. These areas can also be damaged by excessive stress (“Brain Facts” 79). From this, it can be seen that environmental factors, including poverty and home environment, have effects on parts of the brain in charge of mental illness, which subsequently make the victim suffer from the disorder. This aspect of a person’s “nurture,” which is the surroundings in which they grow up, clearly shows that one’s environment affects mental health.
Family is not only genetics but also an environmental factor. The influence of my parents, for example, is one of the biggest influences on not only my mental health but my life in general. This is the case not only for me but for teens across the world. The World Health Organization reports that one in every four children aged 13 to 15 in India is depressed (Rawal). In cultures known for having strict parents, such as Asian countries with the well-known stereotype of “tiger moms,” children are under massive pressure to succeed and do well in school from a very young age. As a Chinese teenager, I, too, felt this pressure growing up, and my mother was far from the strictest of the parents of my peers. Children whose mental tolerance is far from mature are severely affected by this pressure from their parents. This stress can lead to many mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and eventually, in some cases, suicide (Rawal). And it is not just overly strict parents that have adverse effects on their children’s mental health. Hostile and abusive, or disengaged and withdrawn parenting, are also associated with depression in young children (“Associations Between”). This communicates the importance of familial relationships on mental illnesses in young children and teenagers, which may persist throughout adulthood. The factor of the family is included in the “nurture” half of nature versus nurture, as it is literally how these children are raised and the impact the environment has on how they grow up.
As a teenager, another important determinant of my mental health is my school environment. School to me and many teens, is where most of our social interactions occur and where we either make friends or enemies. One critical case that is experienced by many is toxic friends. These so-called “friends” will constantly put you down, gossip, make you feel nervous, and more. Toxic friendships can increase stress, usually by saying or doing things that upset you when you spend time together (Raypole). Excessive stress can damage the prefrontal cortex of the brain, leading to depression (“Brain Facts” 79). The school environment is another crucial factor that contributes to the mental health of children and teens. Specifically, the relationships formed in the school are also vital to how healthy the students are mentally. However, school is not all about friends. School is about academics, and those play an even more prominent role in every student’s life. Research shows that academic stress leads to poorer well-being and an increased likelihood of developing anxiety or depression (“How Does Academic”). From this, it is clear to see that the home environment of a person contributes significantly to their mental health.
Interactions Between Genetic Predispositions and Environment
As stated before, nature and nurture are not black and white and should not be treated as such. For example, a teenager could be genetically predisposed to have a more violent personality. Being born into a dangerous environment surrounded by people with the same temperament could cause them to develop these anger management issues and tendencies further, worsening their mental health. However, suppose the same person with the same genetic predispositions was born into a safer and more understanding environment instead. In that case, they could be conditioned by the people around them to gradually become a person with a milder temperament. The same goes for those who suffer from severe mental disorders such as major depression, for example. The person living with the mental illness is born with the disease, but the environment plays an essential role in living with the disorder. Suppose one is surrounded by unsupportive and toxic individuals who do not care about them or their mental health. In that case, they may find themselves gradually becoming more and more depressed, possibly ending their lives. However, this is not always the case. If the depressed person lives in a supportive and comforting environment, around others willing to give them the help they need, they may gradually recover from depression. Through the work of close family and friends, therapists, and others in their lives, they could learn to have good mental health. This shows that it is not only nature or nurture alone that determines a person’s mental health; however, in some cases, it is more of an interaction of both influences.
With current medical and experimental capabilities, it is impossible to pinpoint the determiner of mental health to one specific aspect. All the contributing factors can be separated into two categories—nature and nurture. There is also the third category which is a combination of both nature and nurture. These factors differ when it comes to different people; some are wealthy, some are not, some have genetic predispositions that make them vulnerable to certain illnesses, and others do not. At the end of the day, what we can do is take care of ourselves to better our mental health. Additionally, we can also help those struggling with mental illnesses who cannot take care of themselves sufficiently.
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Holland, Kimberly. “Mental Health Basics: Types of Mental Illness, Diagnosis, Treatment, and More.” Edited by Timothy J. Legg. Healthline, 19 Sept. 2018, www.healthline.com/health/mental-health#causes. Accessed 22 June 2021.
“How Does Academic Stress Affect Mental Health in the Age of Digital Learning.” KVC Kansas, 10 Nov. 2020, kansas.kvc.org/2020/11/10/how-does-academic-stress-affect-mental-health-in-the-age-of-digital-learning/. Accessed 22 June 2021.
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