How Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Environment Intersect with Mental Health
By: Simrit Dhillon
When thinking of mental health, sustainability, climate change, and the environment are likely not words that typically follow; however, these elements intersect with mental health in many ways. With that in mind, this World Mental Health Day, we will be exploring how sustainability, climate change, and the environment are related to mental health.
Sustainability and Mental Health
To examine mental health from a sustainability perspective, it is important to consider the environment, the economy, and social barriers or challenges when providing quality care, both presently and in the future (Community Research Connections, n.d.). Thus, sustainability not only relates to direct environmental implications but to other avenues, like mental health, which can be used to make it more maintainable. For example, limiting cases of over-medication can decrease economic and environmental burdens, while also improving patient care (Community Research Connections, n.d.); as a result, both areas are made sustainable, making sustainability incredibly significant when discussing this multi-faceted approach to mental health.
Climate Change and Mental Health
Another key element to consider when examining mental health through a sustainability lens is climate change. Climate change has been noted to be a serious threat to health, with a variety of direct and indirect impacts (Community Research Connections, n.d.). Some direct impacts of climate change on mental health include conditions like heat stress, while some indirect impacts of climate change on mental health include cultural traditions and social support systems (Filipova et al., 2020). Fortunately, change at any level can help; for instance, mental health professionals could help educate the public about climate change’s mental health impacts (Community Research Connections, n.d.). Therefore, climate change affects mental health in both direct and indirect ways, making this association something worth educating the general public, healthcare providers, and climate change activists about.
Pollution and Mental Health
One facet of climate change that has shown interesting effects on mental health is pollution — both air pollution and noise pollution. In terms of air pollution, a relationship between air pollutants and mental illnesses, like depression, dementia, and anxiety, was observed, as well as a connection between air pollutants and suicide (UN Environment Programme, 2019). In fact, individuals exposed to polluted air at 12 years of age were 3 to 4 times more likely to develop depression at 18 years of age (Roberts et al., 2019). Additionally, there were higher odds of conduct disorders amongst those aged 18 who had experienced air pollution as children (Roberts et al., 2019). As such, it is clear that air pollution can have a negative impact on mental health and mental illnesses, including the development of modifiable ones (e.g. depression). With that in mind, it is necessary for local governments to consider ways in which they can combat air pollution and its related mental health impacts. Some possibilities could include minimizing air pollution, creating more green spaces, and establishing electric transportation services; all of these options will either limit air pollution or increase protective factors to combat it (i.e. green spaces), which will, in turn, assist with decreasing the mental health challenges air pollution creates (UN Environment Programme, 2019).
In regards to noise pollution, there has been evidence depicting its correlation with mental health problems (Filipova et al., 2020). In particular, it has been correlated with cognitive impairment, poor sleep, and worsening mental illness status (Filipova et al., 2020). Again, pollution is shown to negatively impact mental health and related components, illustrating how crucial it is to think about both climate change and mental health holistically.
Eco-anxiety is a newer term that has been being coined quite often as of late; however, it is a notion that many are unsure and/or confused about. That being said, there is consensus regarding its definition, and it is, in fact, quite self-explanatory: eco-anxiety is a sense of feeling stuck and powerless because of climate change, and experiencing anxiety or stress because of the sense of fear it can bring (Eco Anxious Stories, n.d.) (Drost, 2021).
Eco-anxiety can have significant consequences on mental health and wellness. For one thing, it can lead to ongoing stress, depression, and anxiety (Drost, 2021). These findings were further established through the Greenlandic Perspectives on Climate Change 2018–2019 National Survey results; from this, it was discovered that living amongst climate change led to increased anxiety and depression, due to ecological grief (Minor et al., 2019). Hence, it is fairly evident that climate change can cause distress and anxiety about the future and what it will be like (Filipova et al., 2020).
However, partaking in change is not as complicated as it may appear! For instance, you could: decrease your personal fossil fuel emissions and carbon footprint; eat more vegan and vegetarian meals; buy clothes, furniture, and other products that are second-hand or used; and participating in climate events and rallies (Drost, 2021).
The Environment and Mental Health
The environment can have a positive or negative impact on mental health, depending on its condition and the interactions with it (UN Environment Programme, 2019) (Delagran, n.d.). Moreover, the environment can influence stress, mood, and bodily systems, including the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems (Delagran, n.d.). As a result, a negative environment can lead to anxiety, sadness, and a sense of helplessness; and physically, appear as increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, and immune system suppression (Delagran, n.d.). This is extremely dangerous during COVID-19 since our immune systems are our primary defense against the virus; thus, it is clear that many domains intersect within a single, macrosystem when it comes to the environment and wellbeing. For this reason, the environment should be considered when discussing mental health, and vice versa.
A major component of the environment is nature itself, which is also impactful, in terms of mental health. Being around nature is correlated with increased psychological wellbeing, decreased mental health risk factors, and decreased psychological stress exacerbated by some mental illnesses (UN Environment Programme, 2019). Furthermore, nature has been shown to decrease anger, fear, and stress, while it encourages positive emotions (Delagran, n.d.). As a matter of fact, even having one plant in one’s room can decrease stress and anxiety immensely (Delagran, n.d.). Similarly, one study found that 95% of interviewees experienced an improved mood after spending some time outside, going from feeling depressed, stressed, and anxious to feeling more calm and balanced (Delagran, n.d.). Additionally, being introduced to a natural environment is linked with improved happiness, subjective well-being, positive moods, positive social engagement, and a sense of purpose, while distress decreased (Weir, 2020).
Nature can also distract from the pain, according to a study conducted by Robert Ulrich (Delagran, n.d.). The study focused on patients who had undergone gallbladder surgery, of which half had a window view of nature, whilst the other half only had a view of the wall (Delagran, n.d.). Overall, the patients who were able to view nature were able to handle pain better, appeared to experience fewer negative effects, and spend less time in the hospital (Delagran, n.d.).
Lastly, nature can also provide cognitive benefits. According to the research conducted by Andrea Taylor, spending time outside in nature helped children with ADHD to experience a better attention span when they were older (Delagran, n.d.). In addition, interacting with nature was associated with improved empathy and cooperation (Weir, 2020). Finally, green spaces within nature were found to also provide cognitive benefits, such as assisting with cognitive development and self-control behaviours amongst children and improving attention and working memory in adults (Weir, 2020).
Taking all of this into consideration, nature is key to mental health, impacting wellbeing, risk factors for mental illness, stress, emotions, anxiety, mood, depression, happiness, social engagement, pain, empathy, cooperation, and cognition (including attention and memory). As such, the relationship between the natural environment and mental health should be acknowledged and understood when discussing intervention in either avenue.
To conclude, mental health is linked to sustainability, climate change, and the environment, and these connections impact the potential improvement and positive outcomes of each element of our macro and intersectional system. Hence, perhaps this World Mental Health Day, we should consider how we can take action, with respect to these associations.
What Does This Mean for Us? Simple Ways to Get Involved and/or Experience Positive Mental Health Impacts from the Environment (Mind, 2018)
There are many ways to get involved and/or experience positive mental health impacts from the environment, including:
- Creating a growing space (e.g. place for a plant/plants)
- Having a vegetable garden
- Going fruit picking
- Having potted plants in your house
- Collecting natural objects (e.g. pressed flowers, leaves, shells, rocks, etc.)
- Keeping green space in mind when arranging furniture
- Taking pictures of beautiful, natural sites
- Going for a walk or exercise in green spaces
- Eating meals in nature
- Going stargazing
- Trying hiking on trails
- Trying geocaching
- Volunteering for a litter clean-up initiative or another green initiative
- Building/buying birdhouses for your backyard
- Trying birdwatching
- Partaking in a nature survey
Community Research Connections. (n.d.). Statement on sustainability in mental health. https://www.crcresearch.org/news/our-community/statement-sustainability-mental-health
Delagran, L. (n.d.). How does nature impact our wellbeing? University of Manitoba. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing
Drost, P. (2021, August 18). Eco-anxiety: Activists want to shift the conversation from doom and gloom to hope. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-aug-18-2021-1.6144647/eco-anxiety-activists-want-to-shift-the-conversation-from-doom-and-gloom-to-hope-1.6142814
Eco Anxious Stories. (n.d.). Welcome friend. You are not alone. https://www.ecoanxious.ca/
Filipova, T., Kopsieker, L., Gerritsen, E., Bodin, E., Brzezinski, B., & Rubio-Ramirez, O. (2020). Mental health and the environment. Institute for European Environmental Policy. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://ieep.eu/uploads/articles/attachments/2bfb2051-b305-4338-9770-ae8071320b1a/Mental%20health%20and%20the%20environment.pdf?v=63775265428
Mind. (2018, May). Nature and mental health. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/how-nature-benefits-mental-health/
Minor, K., Per Agneman, G., Davidsen, N., Kleemann, N., Markussen, U., Lassen, D. D., & Rosing, M. T. (2019). Greenlandic perspectives on climate change 2018–2019: Results from a national survey. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339177908_Greenlandic_Perspectives_on_Climate_Change_2018-2019_Results_from_a_National_Survey
Roberts, S., Arseneault, L., Barratt, B., Beevers, S., Danese, A., Odgers, C. L., Moffitt, T. E., Reuben, A., Kelly, F. J., & Fisher, H. L. (2019). Exploration of NO2 and PM2.5 air pollution and mental health problems using high-resolution data in London-based children from a UK longitudinal cohort study. Psychiatry Research, 272, 8–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2018.12.050
UN Environment Programme. (2019, October 10). Caring for the environment helps to care for your mental health. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/caring-environment-helps-care-your-mental-health
Weir, K. (2020). Nurtured by nature. Monitor on Psychology, 51(3). Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature