The SEEP Model: How is Mental Health influenced by External Factors?

Mental health is dynamic and multifaceted and its experience and meaning have been well documented and debated over time.  Ryff (1995) suggests that positive self-attitudes, and self-actualization, with the integration of autonomy and positive relationships, as well as the ability to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotion, especially when dealing with relational and environmental change and uncertainty all promote mental health and well-being.  This perspective is further quantified by The Royal College of Psychiatrists (2014), World Health Organization (2014) and The Mental Health Foundation (2014) cited in The Open University (2015).

In the world of mental health there are a variety of models that define and describe what supports and challenges an individual's mental health, such as the biomedical and psychological models; however, mental health can be a subjective phenomenon that cannot be supported or challenged in isolation, thus a wider, more holistic approach is needed to explore, understand and evaluate the influence and impact of the social context on mental health (ibid).

The social, environmental, economic and political (SEEP) model, developed by The Open University Mental Health Programme enables such an exploration. It has four core elements which focus on the social factors influencing experience and practice within mental health; putting the individual at the core of its permeable elements, that are then shaped by their ethics and values. This paper aims to evaluate its social and environmental elements (ibid).

The premise of the SEEP models social element focuses on relationship-based experiences.  For example, relationship quality and social integration, and how these can support or challenge mental health.  Social support refers to the feelings of love, being understood, respected and valued, and being supported emotionally and behaviourally by family members, friends and colleagues (ibid).  This social connectedness can be divided further into appraisal support; where an individual can receive feedback and social comparison on how to evaluate things; informational support, which is the ability to receive valuable information and examples about how to deal with situations and lastly instrumental support, where an individual can receive ‘actual’ aid and help. These factors can positively support mental health (Hewstone, Stroebe and Jonas, 2008).  A study by Kiecolt et al., (2008) found experiences of emotional support from a spouse/partner correlated positively with psychosocial well-being.  This was then shown to positively support wider social relationships. 

Weiss (1975) cited in Tommaso and Spinner (1997), suggests individuals have well-being needs that can only be met by social integration, and that when relationships become fragmented or there is a lack of affiliation and social support this can result in loneliness and isolation.  Emotional and social loneliness, the absence of supportive friends and social network can all challenge mental health.  When investigating students studying abroad Hunley (2010) also found social isolation and loneliness had a negative impact on their functioning and mental health.

The premise of SEEP models environment element focuses on the impact of the home, neighbourhood and the wider environmental context on mental health (The Open University, 2015). There are a variety of meanings of the residential environment called ‘home’.  It can support identity, promote a sense of belonging, security and comfort (beyond its material structure), whilst representing personal and financial investment. Home can also be a catalyst for experiences of isolation, fear and stress, as well as creating financial constraints more than other material entity (Evans et al., 2003). 

Empirical research has identified many other environmental variables that can support mental health. For example, geographical location (and its perceived reputation), social organisation, sustainable and affordable housing, access to leisure and surrounding areas, as well as open green spaces and faith in local agencies. These have also been reported to increase personal and collective social inclusion, opportunity and a sense of mastery and control within the environment.  When any of these influences becomes fragmented it can then lead to social disorganisation.  The environment can become unpredictable, which can then induce higher rates of antisocial behaviour, vulnerability and lack of opportunity which can then result in behaviour that challenges mental health such as withdrawal, that could lead to isolation and loneliness (Rogers et al., 2008).

The world of mental health is a phenomenon of complexity and diversity and as this paper explains can be supported and challenged by a host of subjective experiences from life events; however, these experiences are not felt in isolation, hence there was a brief exploration of the influence of the broader social context on mental health using the social and environmental elements of the SEEP model.  Human beings are relational creatures that seek out, sometimes unconsciously, social contact.  This contact, if perceived or experienced as positive can then enhance self-identity, self-esteem and social integration with others and the environment.  These experiences can also provide an individual with the resources to form healthy coping strategies when dealing with everyday life, and its challenges.

When there is an absence of actual or perceived support or a felt sense of disconnect from social relationships or the environment becomes fragmented and unpredictable, this can create varying levels of psychological and emotional distress and detachment.  How an individual processes and deals with these perceived threats to their self-concept can have a profound effect on their mental health.  For example, using withdrawal as a coping strategy can promote emotional and social loneliness and experiences of mental health problems.

This paper has provided a glimpse into the multidimensional nature of mental health; its capabilities, strengths and vulnerabilities when exploring what can support and challenge the very personal and subjective nature of human experience.

Author: Anita Steer Couns, Dip. Registered MBACP



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Hewstone, M.; Stroebe, W.; Jonas, K. (2008). ‘Affiliation: The need for social contact’, in Hewstone, M., Stroebe, W.; Jonas, K. (eds) Introduction To Social Psychology A European Perspective Fourth Edition, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Limited, pp. 198-200.


Hunley, H.A. (2010) ‘Students’ functioning while studying abroad: The impact of psychological distress and loneliness’, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 386-392.


Kiecolt, J.K., Hughes, M., Keith, V.M. (2008) ‘Race, social relationships, and mental health’,  Personal Relationships, vol, 15. no. 2, pp. 229-245.


Rogers, A., Huxley, P., Evans, S., Gately, C. (2008) ‘More than jobs and houses: mental health, quality of life and the perceptions of locality in an area undergoing urban regeneration’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, no. 43, pp 364-372.

Ryff, C.D. (1995) ‘Psychological well-being in adult life’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, no. 4, pp. 99-104.


The Open University (2015) Mental Health and Community: Workbook 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University.