Psychosocial environments and mental well-being
- In an increasingly complex and changing society, individuals’ mental wellbeing depends on their ability to act both independently and together as a group.
- Everyone’s open and active participation and mutually respectful communication, at the community level (including family, school and work) and in society as a whole, is crucial for wellbeing and social cohesion.
- Supportive childhood relationships in the family and at school, a lifelong ability to learn and adapt, and strong connections between generations support mental health and wellbeing into old age.
In this chapter, we discuss mental health and perceived wellbeing in family, educational and work settings – that is, in psychosocial environments of relationships that people build every day with other people and society in general. According to bioecology (Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006) individuals are both directly and indirectly related to the functioning of society at different levels, both contributing to it and being affected by it. For example, the perceived wellbeing of family members is related to their personal characteristics (e.g. vitality, health and special needs) and the communication skills that help them cope with family situations, at school, at work and elsewhere. People’s actions are influenced by government policy (e.g. family, employment and education policies), the general social situation (e.g. the labour market, family development trends, educational opportunities, IT capabilities, the pandemic and anxiety about war) and support systems (e.g. services, benefits, social programmes, or community and voluntary activities).
People of all ages need supportive and caring people around them. According to Bowlby Bolwby (1982) people need at least one close relationship for positive self-development to take place and to heighten their sense of security. However, it is better to have more than one close relationship. An individual should also meaningfully identify with more than one psychosocial environment, because belonging to a family, school class, community, work collective, or a group of like-minded people or people who share the same hobby – that is, being connected to various parts of society – is a natural human need.
Humans have the ability to interpret and evaluate their experiences, but for this they need information, active participation and the opportunity to make choices within a framework of agreed rules and norms. In other words, people need to act together for common goals. This is critical with children: there is a widely held attitude that adults have the correct answers, so there is no need to ask children for their opinion.
However, asking children may reveal unexpected and uncomfortable truths for adults. For example, as they get older, Estonian children tend to say they like school less; Estonia is struggling to meet even the average level of satisfaction compared with other countries.Studies show that students appreciate it when their opinions are sought and considered, but they say this rarely happens at school. The same occurs in the workplace, where employees have only a limited say in how work is organised. he articles in this chapter show that, on such occasions, the stress level of both students and employees increases while their wellbeing decreases (see Valk et al. and Kovaljov et al. in this chapter).
Different perspectives, personal vulnerabilities and resilience come together in psychosocial environments.
It is good for wellbeing and mental health if the communicating parties are willing to cooperate for common goals and listen to and respect each other. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related general decline in perceived wellbeing demonstrated that we are all vulnerable and the future is less and less predictable (see Märtsin et al., Valk et al. and Kovaljov et al. in this chapter).
Maintaining social cohesion in the context of social inequality, growing global anxiety and unpredictability (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic and threat of war) tests people’s ability to cope with and resist stress and increases the significance of caring relationships in the psychosocial environment.Although the family is the primary psychosocial environment for children and adults alike, it is not confined to relationships between family members but covers a wider network of relationships, and also relates to education and professional life.
Caring relationships among family make it easier to cope with difficulties both at work and at school. To cope with unexpected events in the labour market, people need to be motivated to engage in lifelong learning. Parents who separate must acquire new parenting skills in order to be good parents in the family’s extended network of relationships.
However, older people who have built and contributed to relationship networks over the course of their life may experience greater social inclusion and a higher sense of wellbeing (see Zakkeus et al. in this chapter). The pandemic blurred the boundaries between family, work and school and decreased general life satisfaction (see Kovaljov et al. in this chapter). The patterns of behaviour during the pandemic hold lessons for the future, but the question remains: how can we use these sensibly and in ways that support wellbeing?
The rise of ‘me’ culture and external expectations of success is characteristic of a complex society. t is reflected in people’s ability to act independently or as a group and a tendency to compare themselves with others, which is intensifying in different ways. An example of self-agency is the increased competence for independent decision-making in the context of new, more diverse forms of work (see Kovaljov et al. in this chapter). During the COVID-19 pandemic, students with better self-management skills appeared to cope better with the sudden transition to distance learning (see Valk et al. in this chapter). The downside of ‘me’ culture is insufficient life skills for cooperation, including unequal treatment, non-inclusion, and bullying in the family, at school or at work, which threatens the wellbeing and mental health of those involved (see Märtsin et al., Valk et al. and Kovaljov et al. in this chapter).
Comparing oneself with others and expectations of success are conspicuous in education, where academic success is perceived as a formal guarantee of social goodness in a future society. Thus the time the child spends studying (including homework and extracurricular activities) often exceeds the length of an adult’s working day. Subjecting children to expectations of success from an early age is a threat to their mental health and wellbeing. Comparing academic achievement in general education, both at the national level and internationally, divides students, schools and countries hierarchically and emphasises the inequality of students, while children’s wellbeing at school decreases with age, both in Estonia and internationally (see Valk et al. in this chapter).
A ten-year-old child: ‘You don’t have to be the best at everything, but you have to work to be the best at some things. I will be successful if I study and work hard.’ An eight-year-old child: ‘Some people need help to succeed.’
Miller and Almon (2009) claim that excessive management of children’s time in preschool education at the expense of free playtime limits the development of their future capacity for autonomy and creativity.
They point to research showing that children who have free playtime have better linguistic and social skills, are more empathetic, have a more vivid imagination, and understand other people better than those who have no free playtime. They are also less aggressive, have better self-control and are sharper thinkers. Playing with peers also eases stress in anxious children. The stress-reducing effect of playing was evident during the state of emergency during the first wave of COVID-19. Both children and adults in families spent more time playing games together at home than before, increasing their sense of security and unity in the family (see Märtsin et al. in this chapter).
A couple relationship is the most important source of wellbeing in a person’s life, and the presence of children adds to it. Expectations of closeness, safety and cooperation in the family are high despite the diversity of family structures in Estonian society and the subjective blurring of the definition of family, especially in the case of children. However, in an aging society, children are highly valued, which challenges adults to be good parents even if they do not live with their children. According to children’s self-assessment, girls are more sensitive to changes in the family structure than boys. Living in a family with a stepparent can affect perceived wellbeing, especially for girls (see Märtsin et al. in this chapter).
A normative shift has taken place in society: awareness of the importance of equal parenting is strengthening. Several family policy measures have been developed, including services that help reduce the burden of care within the family. UStudies show that the older generation seeks to maintain their agency for as long as possible because it supports wellbeing. However, this tendency has highlighted a new aspect in couple relationships in old age – the need to care for a loved one, which affects wellbeing. Women living alone without the burden of caregiving report having higher levels of wellbeing than men living alone (see Zakkeus et al. in this chapter).
It is unusual for three generations in Estonia to live together in one household. Due to labour migration and diversifying cultural backgrounds, families are becoming more international.
This means that family networks more often extend beyond national borders, putting space between different generations and hindering intergenerational learning. Fewer ‘country grandmas’ are at hand to share their wisdom, as more and more grandchildren live abroad and see them maybe once or twice a year. The importance of the older generation in children’s lives became particularly evident during the COVID-19 state of emergency, when children missed their grandparents and were concerned about their health (see Märtsin et al. in this chapter).
In a complex society, work life and work-related psychosocial environments of relationships and communication (e.g. virtual, physical, local, international and global) tend to diversify. Analysing the COVID-19 situation identified several dilemmas characteristic of this new era. These include remote work and independent decision-makingversus an employee’s reliability in the eyes of the employer, or increasing job insecurity versus a sense of belonging (see Kovaljov et al. in this chapter). Even with the pandemic subsiding, more and more companies are adapting work arrangements to be more flexible, offering opportunities to work in the office or remotely. With hybrid work, the psychosocial work environment inevitably changes as well.
Studies show that, compared to not working employment supports wellbeing: work keeps the individual connected to society and helps maintain social cohesion (see Kovaljov et al. in this chapter).
The workplace also fosters self-development and increases everyone’s self-efficacy. Changes in the labour market are obviously not limited to technological improvements but are also manifested in changing relationships and lifestyles. Every new generation adds diversity and builds richer psychosocial environments.
Back in the day, parents were probably not in the habit of weighing or analysing how one thing or another affected their child or what
was going on deep inside their soul. It’s a pity. Nowadays people are more aware, but the problems they face are also more numerous and
My grandmother was simply a wonderful person. By setting an example, she taught me to work hard, have an optimistic and fair
outlook on life and people, and help others. I think back at our time together with great fondness and gratitude.
People’s motivation to learn stems not only from their innate curiosity but also from the demands on parenting skills in family life, the need to acquire new skills in work life and the expansion of educational opportunities in society. People learn by participating in different areas of life and contributing to various psychosocial environments. Learning takes place everywhere and in many forms: formal, non-formal and informal.
Lifelong learning supports subjective wellbeing and maintains social cohesion. This is especially important during times of rapid change when loneliness can start dominating a person’s life (e.g. after losing a job, during self-isolation due to a pandemic, or as a result of diminishing intergenerational relationships and solidarity). A discourse of ‘education for wellbeing’ is gradually gaining currency, whereby academic achievement and interest in learning support both independent action and collective action towards common goals.
In order to survive and exist, we need ‘existential intelligence’ in our private life, working life and social life – that is, the ability to find our way forward and navigate the choices arising from complex life situations. Lifelong learning is the reality of today. The school system does not pronounce final truths; personal, social and professional edification is a lifelong process. People learn in different contexts and new situations, through continual self-discovery, self-belief and self-valuing, and by communicating with others. They learn to live a healthy life in an unhealthy world and to contribute to creating a healthier society.
We must remember that in an unequal society, children and young people are in an unequal position in relation to one another, both in terms of their personal characteristics and in terms of how favourable the surrounding environment is for them. Glass ceilings and floors tend to perpetuate their social position and circumscribe their opportunities and wellbeing. Children and young people need support in creating and realising opportunities in their lives – breaking through the glass ceiling (e.g. achieving their goals) and avoiding falling through the glass floor (e.g. dropping out of school). The psychosocial environment of relationships at school is particularly important for mental health and wellbeing. Bullying, both among students and between students and teachers, threatens the wellbeing of all parties and has long-term consequences for mental health (Soo and Kutsar 2021).
Recreational activities are accompanied by a psychosocial environment that supports children’s wellbeing in addition to providing a complex development challenge (see Valk et al. in this chapter).
Recreational activities are important for people’s wellbeing at any age. They reinforce a sense of belonging to a community and a sense of cultural history and meaning, as well as providing opportunities for creativity. Recreational activities are an example of cross-disciplinary prevention work benefitting mental health, which does not qualify as mental health intervention.
Therefore, in contemporary society we are all artists – knowingly
or not, willingly or not, whether we like it or not. We are life artists
because we all are expected to give our lives purpose by using our
own skills. I use the term ʻartist’ because being an artist involves
having the capacity to give form and shape to what would other-
wise be formless and shapeless; to impose order on what would
otherwise be chaotic, haphazard and random.
We are connected to each other through psychosocial environments built around relationships. As society becomes more complex and the future less predictable, these environments are increasingly sophisticated – families as functional networks, work relationships in their different forms and modes, and the diverse education landscape. Psychosocial environments are created collectively, acting together. Psychosocial environments are created collectively, acting together. In education, it is very important to focus on the learning environment and the respectful treatment of students just as much as on academic achievement, and to facilitate participation in educational life in general. For those who are absent from the labour market, new ways must be found to bring them back. It is also important to recognise the meaningful work done by people of different ages in terms of maintaining well-being and mental health.
In order to notice emerging social problems and find new solutions to reduce existing problems, it is important to monitor the well-being of people of different ages in psychosocial environments that are meaningful to them. Instead of intervening only after mental health problems have surfaced, greater emphasis must be placed on prevention, including the development of communities that support social cohesion.
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Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2006). The Bioecological Model of Human Development. W. Damon, & R. M. Lerner (toim.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 1: Theoretical Models of Human Development (lk. 793–828). New York: John Wiley.
Hildebrandt, S. (2009) Multiple Intelligences in the Knowledge-Based Society. C. Clouder, B. Heys, M. Matthes (toim.) Improving the Quality of Childhood in the European Union. Current Perspectives. (lk 142-151). Belgium: Alliance for Childhood European Network Foundation.