Assessing the Impact of a Policy or Program on the Mental Health of a Population

There are many definitions of mental health promotion that have been put forward by organizations, governments, and individuals from around the world. While all similar, there are some important differences that impact how mental health promotion is understood and practiced. One of my favourite definitions is this one: the “actions taken to maximize the mental health and wellbeing of populations by improving social, physical and economic environments; and strengthening the understanding and skills of individuals in ways that support their efforts to achieve and maintain mental health” (Victorian Government Department of Health, 2010).

The reason I’m so partial to this definition is because it highlights the fact that mental health is influenced not just by the knowledge and behaviours of the individual, but also by the environment in which he/she lives, works, and plays; what’s more, the environmental factors influencing mental health are mentioned first in the definition, implying considerable weight should be given to these factors. I find too often, emphasis is placed on what an individual can do to promote their mental health, with little acknowledgement of the structural and environmental conditions that play a significant role in one’s mental health and well-being.

This is the definition that is utilized within the Victorian Government Department of Health’s recent publication, Using policy to promote mental health. This publication is intended to provide policymakers with the skills to be able to understand and consider the social and environmental determinants of mental health when developing or reviewing policies. Some of these key determinants include social inclusion, freedom from violence and discrimination, education, income, employment, and working conditions. One of the things I appreciate most about this document is that it provides some concrete steps policymakers can take to assess the mental health promoting impact of a policy or program.

Because mental health is influenced by such a broad range of social, environmental and economic factors, a large majority of programs and policies could benefit from having their mental health promoting impact assessed. For instance, an assessment of the mental health promoting impact of the City of Vancouver’s Healthy City Strategy (which I have previously written about here) could be very useful in deciding which programs and policies to implement. I would encourage anyone involved in developing or reviewing economic, social, or environmental programs or policies to think about these programs/policies through a mental health promotion lens, and consider assessing the mental health promoting impact of their program/policy.

Victorian Government Department of Health (2010). Using policy to promote mental health. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Masthead photo courtesy of Pink Sherbert Photography from Flickr

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