Determinants of mental health

Research on mental health tells us that the three most important determinants of mental health are social inclusion, freedom from discrimination and violence and access to economic resources.

Social inclusion

Social inclusion is important for our mental health.  Social inclusion means feeling you belong, are valued and respected, and can take part in your community and benefit equally from what your community has to offer. Communities are defined not only by place but also by identity, culture, ethnicity, and faith.

There are three elements to social inclusion. One element is our social connectedness. That means having informal relationships with people—family, friends, teachers, and youth workers, for instance. These social ties help us feel a sense of belonging and an enhanced sense of purpose. We are better prepared to cope with the stresses and challenges we face when we have a network of people who care about us. We can turn to the people in our network for support and help to deal with problems. When we need extra help, the people in our social network can also help us find and get connected to the social supports and resources in our communities. Being socially isolated, on the other hand, can be harmful to our mental health.

The second element is our social capital. That means the resources available to people and to society that are provided through social relationships and networks. This fosters a sense of neighbourliness, mutual trust, shared values and cooperation amongst network members.  These resources can be cultural in nature such as libraries, schools, and community centres as well as resources that provide support such as after-school programs, youth centres, and youth-friendly health centres. Economic resources, such as jobs for youth and community gardens that feed us, are another part of social capital. So are social resources, such as informal arrangements people make that help one another out. Strong, resilient communities tend to have a lot of social capital; they use these resources to support their members.

Civic engagement and participation is the third element of social inclusion. Civic engagement means getting involved, trying to address issues the community faces, or advocating for change. Participation means taking part in social and recreation opportunities, such as sports teams, cultural programs, faith-based groups, and youth groups. Civic engagement and participation help build ties with others, increase our social capital, and feel like we are making a difference in our community.

All three of the elements of social inclusion are likely to be found in communities where people truly respect and value one another and are committed to ensuring that everyone can lead rich and full lives, regardless of factors such as sex, ethnic and racial background, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation, shape or size, and income level.

Freedom from discrimination and violence

We are more likely to experience positive mental health and well-being when we feel like we are in control of our lives. Part of that is living in communities that value diversity—communities where we feel physically safe and have equitable access to the determinants that support good physical and mental health. Across Ontario, there are people, even whole groups of people, who are not accepted, valued, respected, and treated fairly. Some people in our communities experience violence, such as bullying, child abuse and neglect, and intimate partner violence.

Stigma is often a key reason that people face discrimination and violence. Stigma refers to the negative attitudes and stereotypes held against a group of people. People often face stigma and discrimination because of their gender, sexual identity, ethnic or racial background, ability, or mental health status. Stigma and discrimination put the mental health and well-being of individuals and groups at risk, and make it hard for people to feel a sense of control over their lives and to feel like they belong. They may find it harder to participate in their community, and to access services and opportunities. Other people may exclude them, say or do mean things, or even physically hurt them.

Access to economic resources

Access to economic resources such as housing, education, employment and income protects and promotes mental health and well-being because it has an impact on our social connectedness, our personal sense of competence and control as well as our socio-economic status. Not having access to economic resources can result in poverty and hardship, making it very difficult to afford decent housing, good food, clothing, transportation, and many other things we need to be healthy.

Not being able to fulfill our basic needs due to income inequality creates stress and impacts our mental health. It makes it hard to fully participate in our communities and do the things that interest us. With full economic participation, we can seek out opportunities that enrich our lives and communities and help us to be socially included and connected. Some approaches that are proven to reduce income inequality include: improving adult literacy, providing quality child care programs, job readiness programs and refurbishing public housing.

Learn more on the determinants of mental health at Victorian Government Health InformationCanadian Mental Health Association, Ontario or visit the Toolbox tools for resources on the determinants of mental health.