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The social determinants of mental health: An overview and call to action

This resource is available in English only.

In recent years, much attention has been given to the social determinants of health (SDH) and how they impact disparities in illness/disease rates among population groups who experience marginalization. Though the social determinants of mental health (SDMH) are comparable to those related to physical health, the former deserve particular attention related to both the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of positive mental health through changes to the socioeconomic environment.

The social determinants of mental health in relation to mental illness

This commentary article begins with a brief history of theories surrounding the roots of mental illness, originating in environmental public health areas and shifting toward “biological psychiatry” and attention to genetic factors. The importance of a population-based approach to mental health promotion is presented, including the dual importance of risk factors and protective factors, drawing attention to the role of the SDH in both the causes and course of mental illness. Several roots of population mental health are noted, such as policies that determine the distribution of wealth, power and resources, in addition to lack of societal supports to provide adequate care.

Options to address the SDMH are described, including actions for clinicians working with individuals, advocacy and political discourse, and policy development that improves living conditions. Collaboration across sectors to address population-level inequities and training in medical and psychiatry programs are also suggested. Addressing social determinants of physical and mental health creates environments that can both support positive mental health and mitigate the impact of mental illness.

Use this resource to

  • deepen understanding of how physical and social environments impact mental health of individuals and populations;
  • initiate a discussion about the roots of positive mental health promotion and prevention of mental illness, as well as the distinction between them; and
  • advocate for policies that improve living conditions as a way to promote positive mental health. 


Shim, R., Koplan, C., Langheim, F.J.P., et. al. (2014). The social determinants of mental health: An overview and call to action. Psychiatric Annals; 44(1): 22-26.

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Tags: Healthy public policy, Leadership & capacity building, Mental Health, Participate in policy development, Commentary