We are all pretty familiar with the fact that things like chronic stress and the support network available to us can affect the state of our mental health. Most of us also know that our genes play a role in whether we develop conditions such as anxiety or depression. Many of us are similarly aware that stressful life events such as moving house, losing a loved one or dealing with a physical illness can also affect the state of our mental health. However not many people realise that there are two other factors which play a very significant role in the development of mental illness...
Firstly, the new scientific field of epigenetics demonstrates clearly that the way in which we live our lives plays a role in whether we develop mental illness. What epigenetics teaches us is that lifestyle choices, social circumstances, environment, upbringing and other similar factors do all play a role in our biochemistry and how our genes are expressed. The lifestyle choices that may make the expression of mental illness more likely include not getting enough sleep, having a poor diet, not exercising enough, drinking too much, smoking and also the outlook that we have. So, our moral, social and lifestyle choices all play a role in how our body functions on the physical level. Our biology is also dictated by our behaviour, choices and ethics. For example, Southwick et al., have suggested that those individuals that have a strong internal belief system or moral compass are more likely to be emotionally resilient and therefore less likely to develop mental illness (2005 cited Wu et al., 2013). A study by Alim et al., on 259 patients also suggested that those individuals that feel a strong sense of purpose in life, were more emotionally resilient (Alim et al., 2008). Similarly, Ambriz et al., (2013 cited in Shastri, 2013) highlight that psychological resources which an individual either possesses as a natural trait or as a behaviour they have learnt over time, such as internal control, optimism, self-esteem, seeking out emotional support and coping strategies of acceptance, protect an individual and enable that individual to adapt in the face of tragedy or trauma. Therefore, whilst an individual may be more genetically pre-disposed to mental illness or may experience changes in their hormone levels or brain-functioning which cause their mental illness, many of these biological changes are mediated by environmental and social factors such as that individual's outlook, diet, sleeping patterns and stress levels. These environmental factors are in turn meditated by other factors such as culture, technological advancements, the political climate, the availability of unhealthy/processed foods and common working patterns.
The second factor which plays a role in the state of our mental health is the state of our microbiome. Lucas states that "observed links between disturbance of the gut microbiome (dysbiosis) and stress, anxiety, and depression have shifted the research ground for mental disorder" (2018). The microbiome is the range of micro-organisms that is found in the gut and the prevalence of beneficial microbiota in the gut is something biological that can be objectively measured. New research shows that the state of our microbiome has an impact on the state of our mental health. For example, a study conducted by Clapp et al. (2017) on the link between the state of the microbiota and mental health highlighted "the importance of a healthy microbiome, particularly the gut microbiota, for patients suffering from anxiety and depression, as dysbiosis and inflammation in the CNS have been linked as potential causes of mental illness, there is a large body of literature that supports a role for microbiota-brain communication in mood and emotional domains, and they demonstrate that dietary interventions may have potential in mental health" (2017). As described by Foster (2017), one of the things that has an important impact on the state of our microbiome is our diet and lifestyle, therefore confirming that behavioural, social, environmental and even political factors play a role in the state of both our mental and physical health. As Clapp et al. confirm "Diet alterations can have significant impact on the gut bacterial composition in as little as 24 hours" (2017). A lot of policies on diet, food production and labelling, for example, are government led and therefore this emerging field of research into the gut microbiome is a clear indicator that a range of factors, social, political and cultural as well as behavioural - play a role in whether we develop mental illness.
Several studies indicate that rates of mental illness such as anxiety and depression have risen dramatically over the past 100 years (Twenge et al., 2010; Olfson et al., 2015; Lester, 2013; Herbst, 2011). Perhaps this upsurge in mental illness is inevitable as our day-to-day lives have become more and more stressful, we are more and more sleep deprived and surrounded by more and more unhealthy/processed food? Technological advancements also mean that many of us are all permanently connected to our workplaces and are often working round the clock. Certainly, from an epigenetic stand-point, our current environment is one of the worst for up-regulating those genes that can lead to mental illness. These high stress levels, the over consumption of junk food and lack of sleep many people are experiencing are certainly not helping our microbiome either.
Has our pursuit of technological advancement, striving for financial gain, getting-by on little sleep and living off whatever food we can grab, caused us all problems of living and created a society where mental illness is now the norm?