By Bronagh Loughlin
The potential impacts of climate change are well known – we see news regularly about extreme weather events, flooding, droughts and the impact all of this has on infrastructure and agriculture.
However, we don’t often hear about the impact of climate change on our mental health. World Mental Health day (10th October) has just passed and it’s important to bring attention to the relationship between the environment and mental health.
Although most people don’t get bogged down about natural disasters and the extreme weather events imposed by climate change, many feel increased anxiety, stress and depression as a result.
The mental health consequences of events linked to a changing global climate include feelings of stress and distress, high-risk coping behaviours such as increased use of alcohol or drugs and occasionally, a rise in mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
The impacts of climate change can also lead to life changes and these also can impact people’s mental health. For example, job loss, having to move homes, loss of community resources and social support – all have mental health consequences.
Not to mention, anticipation of extreme weather events and concern for the phenomenon of climate change can be hugely stressful. The climate crisis has also attributed to a new form of anxiety people are feeling (although not an official diagnosed form of anxiety). It is referred to as eco-anxiety.
For those who are not yet familiar with the term, eco-anxiety refers to a fear of ecological disaster or environmental damage. This kind of anxiety is largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change.
Oftentimes, those who experience eco anxiety can feel overwhelmed and feel useless in the face of the environmental emergency. This is often because they feel as though they are not doing enough to curve climate change’s impacts.
The environment can influence our mental wellbeing, positively or negatively. The Greenlandic Perspective study from 2019 revealed that the idea of living in a climate emergency was affecting Greenlanders’ anxiety and depression.
Another recent study published in Psychiatry Research revealed that air pollution, one of climate change’s many effects, has an impact on our mental wellbeing. It discovered that children become three or four times more likely to have depression at 18 if they were exposed to dirtier air at age 12.
A link has also been forged between traffic-related air pollution and anxiety. Whilst air pollution and other environmental hazards pose serious threats to our mental health and wellbeing, healthy environments can help us to feel better and even have a curative effect.
Governments can play a crucial role in tackling the mental health crisis by reducing air pollution, enhancing the availability of green spaces and establishing non-motorized or electric transport initiatives.
The natural world presents countless other mental health benefits. The Global Environmental Outlook reports that forests can promote both physical and mental wellbeing. Although a simple answer, the ultimate healthcare system is nature.
Nature has the ultimate healing powers when it comes to mental health. Being in nature or simply viewing scenes of nature has been discovered to reduce fear, stress and anger and increase pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes people feel better emotionally but it also contributes to their physical wellbeing.
Being in nature reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones – all of which have an impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Also, scientists have found that being in nature and viewing nature can also reduce mortality.
Schools, hospitals and offices have carried out research that shows even having a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on anxiety and stress.
Up until very recently, the role that a healthy environment plays in safeguarding human health had been hugely neglected. However, this is changing. Little by little, both citizens and Governments are becoming aware of the fact that by helping nature, we can also improve our mental wellbeing.
If we want to tackle our mental health crisis, the first place to start is restoring nature and making nature a priority. Although it is a simple answer, it is one that will be hugely effective on millions of people’s mental health.
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