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Thriving or surviving? Taking a wide angle on mental health

Free article collection explores what’s behind good mental health – for Mental Health Awareness Week #MHAW

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Editor’s note: This month, we are exploring the theme “from science to society” – how research is making a difference in all aspects of life, including mental health.


When we talk about mental health, it’s often in the context of illness and treating disorders like depression and anxiety. But looking at mental health from the opposite side – what makes us healthy – provides enlightening insights too.

May 8-14 is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. This year, the campaign focuses on promoting good mental health rather than treating problems – exploring why some of us are surviving while others are thriving. What is it that makes some people with a history of criminal behavior develop mental health issues while others do not? And why is it that some people are less prone to depression than others?

Understanding these deeply complex questions requires a broad view of the issues. Results from research across disciplines and journals is extremely valuable. At Elsevier, we tag this content to make it machine readable; that means researchers can search it more easily and find related content, while medical practitioners can use it with patients at the point of care. Platforms such as ClinicalKey are starting to be adopted by mental health trusts, providing reliable, evidence based answers drawn from this research.

In this article collection, we have pulled together a small selection of articles published in the last year that investigate mental health by looking at what is behind some people’s success, happiness and mental health – what makes some people thrive.

Get moving for mental health

Exercise: love it or hate it, we all know it’s good for our health. And according to a growing body of research, this is also the case for our mental health – even from a young age. School students often find themselves stressed and under pressure to perform in standardized tests. Sport plays a big role in education in the US, with many students participating in team sports. Previous research has shown exercise is linked to lower levels of depression and better relationships with peers, and a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology has added academic achievement to the list.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota in the US and the University of Alberta in Canada analyzed data from the 2010 administration of the Minnesota Student Survey, which consisted of information from 29,535 12th grade students (aged about 18). 12,849 of the students participated once or twice a week in school-organized sports. The researchers found that students who participated in sports were more likely to have higher academic achievement (as shown by GPA scores) and perceive the school to be safe and their family and teachers to be supportive.

The exercise effect goes beyond team sports at school: a study in Body Image reveals that people who practice yoga have a more positive body image. The researchers, from Flinders University in Australia, asked 193 yoga practitioners and 127 university students who don’t practice yoga to answer a questionnaire covering four areas: body image, embodiment, self-objectification and desire for thinness.

The yoga practitioners had a more positive body image and lower levels of self-objectification. The researchers concluded: “yoga is an embodying activity that can provide women with the opportunity to cultivate a favorable relationship with their body.”

Go online for a happiness boost?

While embodiment clearly has a positive impact on body image, our non-physical presence also affects our mental health. Social media is used almost ubiquitously among young people, making it an increasingly important means of connection and communication. According to research in Computers in Human Behavior, certain social media channels can also make us happier.

Researchers from the University of Oregon in the US found that not all channels have such control over our mental health; they argue that it’s the image-based social media sites, like Instagram and Snapchat, that have a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. The researchers conclude:

Our results indicate that the more image-based social media platforms one uses, the happier, more satisfied with life, and less lonely he or she is likely to perceive being.

Social media doesn’t always get such a positive review – we often see calls to abandon Facebook or leave Twitter behind if we want to be happier. After all, social media provides something of a rose-tinted lens to view everyone else’s blissful happiness, and it can even lead to rejection. Yet it isn’t always the case that social media makes us miserable – or happy. Researchers from Cornell University in the US have worked out why.

In their study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the researchers looked at people’s sensitivity to positive feedback on Facebook, testing whether the number of likes people got on their profile pictures were positively linked to self-esteem. They found that people with a greater sense of purpose were less sensitive to positive feedback on social media.

Read the collection

Navigating the complex and multifaceted issues involved in understanding why some people thrive while others survive requires access to information across disciplines. On ScienceDirect, it’s easy to navigate among related articles, exploring an issue from many angles and developing a broad, cross-disciplinary understanding of the topic. You can read some of the newest research on mental health in this collection, freely available until August 7, 2017.

Empowering Knowledge pageFrom science to society

Research on science and health plays a huge role in our daily lives. This month of May 2017, we are featuring stories that showcase the theme "from science to society." For more stories about people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit Empowering Knowledge.

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