On this World Mental Health Day, we draw attention to the relationship between mental health and the environment.
The environment can influence either positively or negatively a person’s mental well-being. A recent study showed how the idea of living in the midst of the climate crisis was affecting Greenlanders’ anxiety and depression levels. The effects of our changing climate—economic uncertainty, job insecurity, extreme and volatile weather patterns, and displacement—also influence mental health.
Air pollution, among other environmental threats, is particularly harmful, both physically—through damage to our lungs, heart, etc.—and mentally. There is now growing evidence of a link between certain air pollutants and mental illnesses such as depression, dementia, anxiety and suicide. The risk is especially high among young people living in urban areas: according to a recent study published in Psychiatry Research, children become three to four times more likely to have depression at 18 if they had been exposed to dirtier air at age 12.
Lead, a heavy metal, is also toxic to our nervous system as confirmed in the latest Global Chemicals Outlook. Even very low levels of lead concentration in blood may be associated with decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties and learning problems in children.
According to the latest IPBES report, urbanization can increase isolation from nature, which in turn prevents people from harnessing the mental health benefits of being surrounded by natural environments. It also creates risky exposure to the type of air pollution that primarily affects mental health.
Another study by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center shows a link between high traffic-related air pollution and anxiety levels. While air pollution and other environmental hazards pose a threat to our mental health, healthy environments can help us feel better and even have a curative effect. Local governments can play a key role in tackling the mental health crisis by reducing air pollution, enhancing the availability of green spaces or establishing electric and non-motorized transport initiatives, for instance.
The natural world presents countless other health benefits. According to the latest Global Environmental Outlook, forests for example can promote physical and mental well-being. “The full health benefits of the natural world are too extensive to list,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, adding that nature is “the ultimate healthcare system”.
The UN Environment Programme’s BreatheLife action platform presents a number of localized solutions that governments can take to beat air pollution in their cities, with the aim of creating healthier cities with healthier citizens. With global cities like Paris, Montreal or Lima recently joining BreatheLife, the campaign now includes 70 local, regional and national governments working for clean air and enhancing human health in urban areas.
“There are multiple financial, social and environmental reasons for preventing and combating air pollution and for improved management of ecosystems. Human health is rapidly emerging as yet another fundamental one,” says Cristina Zucca, who coordinates work on pollution, environment and health unit at the UN Environment Programme.
Up until recently, the role that a healthy environment plays in safeguarding human health had been greatly neglected, but this is changing. Little by little, both citizens and government are realizing that by helping nature we also improve our well-being.
Are you aware of how the environment can impact your health? For the next few months, the UN Environment Programme is running a series on environmental health literacy, informing our audiences on how the environment can affect their health in both a positive and a negative manner. Stay tuned on our website and social media channels to learn about Your Healthy Environment and the linkages between a healthy environment and healthy people.