There are many limitations in finding a cure-all for mental illness. In my eyes, there is only one way to avoid the risk of mental illness among any given population, and that is prevention. Of course this isn’t to say that once a person has mental illness, all hope is lost. There is a road to recovery.
Today, however, I choose to focus on a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. Prevention of mental illness is rarely spoken of or put into effect because it can only be produced by time, money and effort. There is also the fact that poor mental health stems from a variety of causes — social, biological and neurological factors. Since this is true, there must be a multidimensional effort to enhance prevention of poor mental health and mental illness across our communities.
First, let’s cover risk factors and protective factors of mental illness. Risk factors are aspects that are associated with an increased probability of onset, greater severity and longer duration of major health problems. Protective factors are aspects that increase people’s resistance to risk factors and mental health disorders. Individual protective factors are mostly identified as traits of mental health, such as emotional resilience, self-esteem, positive thinking, social skills, problem solving, stress management, etc. Mental health promotion generally focuses on and aims to strengthen these factors. Many studies have been conducted in search of how these risk factors and protective factors interact within the development of a mental illness. Both risk factors and protective factors can be individually based, relationally related, social, economic or environmental in nature.
In the development of a mental illness, you will often see the combination of multiple risk factors, a lack of protective factors and the interaction between risk and protective situations. This will eventually predispose an individual to move from a mentally healthy condition into an increased vulnerability for mental illness. Finally, a mental problem will persist and, if left without further protective situations or care, will end with mental illness. By this time, you are beyond preventive, and treatment must come into the scenario. But what would happen if those protective factors were encouraged before a mental health problem came into the picture?
There are five aspects that I find to be the most important to improving mental health and quality of life:
• Improving nutrition: Children and adults need proper nutrition in order for healthy cognitive development to occur. Having improved nutrition not only promotes cognitive health but also promotes improved educational outcomes and a reduced risk for mental illness.
• Improving housing: Poor-quality living situations and poverty are shown to reduce protective factors of mental health. Providing better housing not only would improve physical health outcomes but also would greatly improve mental health outcomes. These outcomes include perceptions of safety, lack of crime and positive social or community participation.
• Improving access to education: This is not limited only to schooling systems for children, but also to programs for adults who do not have access to updated educational programs. Better education increases cognitive, emotional and intellectual competencies and job prospects. This in turn may reduce social inequity and risks of certain mental illnesses, such as depression.
• Reducing economic insecurity: Believe it or not, there is a link between debt and mental illness. Being in debt is a consistent source of stress, which could lead to greater symptoms of depression, mental illness and suicide. There are some nongovernmental organizations that have developed programs for poverty alleviation targeting credit facilities, basic health care and human rights issues, among many other concerns.
• Strengthening community networks: Communities that focus on developing and building a sense of ownership and social responsibility within community members tend to be in better mental health than those that do not. This may also include church support groups or publicly supported programs.
A great bank of evidence and research has been building up in favor of preventive measures within the mental health field. It is possible to work toward prevention of poor mental health and mental illness, but it is a process that many will have to be willing to step forward with. Steps in facilitating preventive measures will include national policies; building of expertise; research supporting the development and implementation of effective programs and policies; and the placement of programming and preventive services. Preventive techniques and efforts won’t grow overnight. They must be groomed and encouraged until the number of those with mental illness decrease. Preventing mental illness shouldn’t be something that we are only talking about; it should be something that we are doing.
Shelby Paulsen is the director of The Rising Sun Clubhouse, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.