Environmental Factors of Mental Health

In trying to understand the many potential causes of psychological disorders, examining the environmental factors of mental health is essential. Individuals considering treatments such as psychotherapy, medication, or magnetic therapy may have better outcomes when they know the influences contributing to their condition.

One of the oldest debates in psychology is whether nature vs. nurture has a more significant influence on mental health. It is now clear that environmental determinants of mental health are complex, numerous, and comprise only a portion of the many factors that impact mental wellness.

Read on to learn what family and social environmental factors affect mental health, then examine the impact of urban and rural environments on mental health outcomes.

environmental factors of mental health

Family and Social Environments: Impacts on Mental Health

Environmental factors that contribute to children’s mental health concerns can profoundly affect their upbringing and adult life.

Social Capital and Mental Health

Social capital is the network of relationships, values, and resources that allow society to function effectively, such as involvement in organizations, trustworthiness, and social reciprocity. Supportive environments have a more significant presence of social capital and better access to it, while more deprived communities have less access to fewer social resources. Researchers have examined how social capital in communities is associated with mental health outcomes.

  • High levels of social capital in communities and workplaces are associated with lower risk of mental health disorders.
  • Feeling safe in a community, trust in others, and social reciprocity are linked with lower risk of mental distress.
  • Research has linked neighborhoods with high violence and low social cohesion with an increased chance of developing depressive symptoms.


Adversity in childhood is linked with mental health disorders and substance abuse in adulthood, and the risk of adversity is disproportionally skewed toward families living in poverty. By age 8, most children living in poverty have experienced at least one type of destabilizing, adverse situation, such as parental separation or emotional neglect. Over 10% of children living in low-income households have had four adverse experiences. Also, stigma is a leading cause of health inequities, often resulting from discrimination and negative perceptions that keep individuals from rising out of poverty.

Family Environment

The family environment significantly influences a child’s risk for developing mental health conditions in youth and adulthood.

  • Adolescents’ Coping Strategies and Mental Health Outcomes

Engagement coping strategies are proactive attempts to change a stressful situation or one’s reaction to it, an approach associated with fewer mental health problems. Multiple research studies have shown that adolescents living in families with high levels of conflict, low levels of communication, and either excessive or insufficient emotional interactions, use fewer engagement coping strategies. These adolescents develop more conduct problems, poorer emotional regulation, and are more disruptive to their family environment.

  • Child Rearing Environment and Depression Risk

A child’s home has a profound effect on their risk of developing depression. A recently published study examined the impact of a depressed parent in the home and the potential for biological relatedness as a factor. Results show that whether parents were biological or adoptive, a parent with major depression meant that children in the home were more susceptible to depression themselves. This association underscored the importance of nurturing and supportive child-rearing environments as a protective effect against depression risk.

  • Exposure to Chronic Verbal Parental Conflict

Exposure to ongoing verbal conflict between parents creates multiple mental health risks for individuals as children and into adulthood.

  • Children are more at risk for developing depressive or alcohol use disorders.
  • Depression symptoms in young adulthood are associated with a childhood environment marked by significant verbal parental conflict.
  • Adverse outcomes in young adulthood also include strained relations with parents, decreased self-esteem, and chronic strain with a partner.

Influence of Rural and Urban Environments on Mental Health

For several years, researchers have noted that living in urban environments is associated with a higher risk of negative mental health outcomes than living in rural areas. Individuals with genetic vulnerabilities to mental health conditions may be more susceptible to this influence, especially if they lived in urban settings as a child.

What environmental factors affect mental health

Exposure to Green Environments

One concern about the influence of living in urban areas is reduced exposure to naturalistic areas in the built environment. A study on the well-being of older adults shows positive effects on cognition, stress, and mood after walking near urban green environments. Another study showed an association between proximity to urban green spaces and reduced anxiety and depression treatment rates. This association may indicate two potential causal pathways at work, the positive visual impact of neighborhood green environments and physical activity in usable green spaces near homes.

Air Pollution

The impacts of air pollution on physical health are well documented, and more evidence shows it may also affect mental health outcomes. Research suggests that inflammation of the central nervous system, linked with chronic exposure to air pollution and the pathology of depression and psychosis, is a crucial factor in this association. While air pollution does occur in rural areas, the rate of poor air-quality days in urban settings is ten times higher due to more potential sources, such as manufacturing plants and vehicle exhaust.

Psychosis and Urbanicity

Though causality has not been established, multiple epidemiology studies have consistently revealed an association between psychosis and living in densely populated urban settings. The drivers of this elevated risk are multifaceted and vary with different countries and ethnic groups. Evidence suggests that neighborhood characteristics may be linked with up to 12% of increased distribution of psychosis in urban settings. Neighborhood deprivation, urban birth, and urban childhood have shown significant association with urban psychosis rates, though more research is needed to disentangle the impact of many influences.

Suicide Risk

In contrast to many research findings on urban environments and mental health, suicide risk appears less pronounced in urban areas than in more sparsely populated ones. While data varies across countries, worldwide suicide rates trend lower in urban areas, with gender accounting for some of the variances. Men seem to be especially vulnerable to suicide risk in rural areas, while women’s risk is less affected by either environment. Differences in stigma, access to mental health care, and social isolation are factors likely influencing these differences, though the understanding of urban-rural suicide risk is far from complete.

The factors influencing this urban-rural difference are complex, and more targeted research may further explain the interaction between suicidality and urban or rural environments.

Understanding Environmental Impacts on Mental Health

Those attempting to address psychological concerns may wonder this: are the most significant influences on mental health hereditary or environmental? The answer is not that simple. Research is uncovering more about the effects of family, social, urban, and rural environments on mental health. Understanding how individuals and their environments interact is vital for managing and treating mental health conditions.