- Complex and interconnected factors affect mental health at any given time.
- Mental health can be influenced by individual factors (genetics/upbringing), external factors (financial constraints/support network) and societal factors (cultural norms/systemic oppression).
- Oversimplifying these complex factors can make it harder for viewers to understand how to address their mental health.
As storytellers, we’re often looking for the simplest and most compelling ways to connect cause with effect. But when it comes to mental health, the causes and influencing factors are complex. Oversimplifying these causes (like attributing an ongoing emotional struggle to a single event like an accident or job loss) can exacerbate harmful misconceptions and make it harder for viewers to help themselves or the people they care about.
Understanding more about the factors that shape mental health also helps content creators to identify what we can and cannot impact through our storytelling.
The graphic below illustrates the many factors that contribute to mental health. These are divided into three categories: Individual Influences, Day-to-Day Influences, and Larger Social Influences.
You may have heard discussions about whether mental health is genetic or the result of people’s experiences and choices — the classic nature vs. nurture argument. In reality, science tells us it’s both. Biology does play a critical role in mental health, and people can be genetically predisposed to conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. Biology can also influence how we process information and how we respond emotionally.
But personal and lived experiences have an important role to play as well. Early life experiences can have a powerful influence on how our minds work, how we process tough emotions, and our overall outlook on mental health and help-seeking. When traumatic things happen — especially in our formative teenage years — that trauma can shape the dynamics of our mental health and impact our ability to cope and thrive. This affects us not just in the moment of the trauma, but often years later.
Much like physical health, emotional health is also impacted by the skills we learn, and the priority we place on being proactive about managing it. Research has shown that young people who are taught emotional self-care and coping mechanisms in a formal way may be less impacted by challenges like depression, stress, and anxiety later in life.
Media can’t change biology, early childhood experiences, or traumatic events that have already taken place. However, stories can help audiences understand how these factors impact mental health and influence how they manage and improve their overall wellbeing.
What happens at work, school, home, and in our communities impacts our mental health. However, these influences have a complex impact and there’s rarely a direct cause and effect.
For example, we sometimes see storylines where young people feel hopeless or think about suicide after being bullied. These stories can unwittingly depict bullying as the sole cause of the character’s distress. In reality, the way people respond to challenging situations is driven both by the situation itself and the state of their mental health at that time, as well as genetic predispositions to depression or suicidality, how well they’re taking care of themselves physically, their coping skills, and whether they feel comfortable speaking up about how they are feeling.
A person’s ability to respond to mental health challenges is also influenced by their support network — or having at least one person they can speak to openly without fear of judgement. The data confirms that this is a powerful protective factor for mental health. In today’s social media-driven landscape, many people equate having a “network” with having a large number of followers. In reality, most of these relationships would not qualify as a support network that can help us through difficult times. Someone being part of our “real support network” means that we can be open and honest with them about how we’re feeling and that they can be there to listen without judgment, help us cope, and support us through the help-seeking process if needed.
The impact media can have on these day-to-day influences depends on the situation. We can’t help viewers control a mean boss or co-worker, or an unexpected financial strain, but we can help them understand how to manage difficult feelings related to these challenges and to accept the parts of life they can’t change.
Mental health is also impacted by our larger social environment, be it cultural norms and beliefs about help-seeking, access to culturally competent care, experiences of discrimination or prejudice, or society-wide challenges such as economic instability, violence, or political discord. For example, research shows that individuals who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) are more likely to grow up in households with a negative view of therapy, self-care, or talking about their feelings.
Other social and political issues can also have a powerful impact on mental health. Research shows that watching videos of police violence against Black Americans can impact Black people’s mental health for three months or more, while no mental health impacts were found in white respondents. Similarly, LGBTQ+ youth who are rejected by their families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who don’t face that type of discrimination.
It is these larger social and cultural issues that we have the greatest power to influence as storytellers. The stories we choose to tell and the way we tell them help to create cultural environments that are either more or less hospitable to marginalized populations, whether due to race, sexuality, gender, or mental health status. They can also influence whether and how audiences take action to support their own emotional health, talk about the challenges they’re facing with their friends, and when and whether they decide to seek professional help.