No mental health without planetary health

WORLD Health Day this Thursday, April 7 is themed “Our Planet, Our Health” and draws global attention to the urgent need to keep the planet healthy for the sake of human health..

We see this happening in Australia as climate change amplifies the frequency of destructive bushfires and floods, with serious consequences for communities, including increased rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

As public health practitioners deeply committed to protecting the mental health of current and future generations, we argue here that addressing environmental determinants upstream of mental health problems is as important as continuing to strengthen downstream mental health services.

Extreme weather events such as the current flooding along the east coast of Australia are fully consistent with scientific predictions of climate change, as the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminds us. climate (IPCC).

The IPCC has long predicted worsening bushfires such as the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, which burned more than 17 million hectares of land, destroyed 3,094 homes and directly claimed 33 lives.

Epidemiological attention has focused on the physical health effects of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke from these fires, especially for vulnerable people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease. However, the effects of the bushfires on mental health have also been severe, with immediate and long-term effects on the mental health of communities.

Unsurprisingly, Australians are worried about climate change and people are under added stress from the cascade of multiple disasters, such as floods, fires and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2021 Mission Australian survey, young Australians rank COVID-19 and the environment as their top two concerns.

Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic is another example of a planetary health issue that impacts mental health. As we clear forests and remove habitat, we bring wild animals closer to human settlements, increasing the risk of spreading pathogens from animals to humans. This is an example of the hidden human health cost of deforestation.

The mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been significant, with a report in The Lancet estimating the impact of the pandemic at 53 million additional cases of major depressive disorder and 76 million cases of anxiety disorders. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 80,000 people have contacted Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellness Support Service.

So how can those concerned about planetary health issues cope in these trying times? We propose three psychological strategies.

Dealing with problem solving focuses our attention on finding information, taking concrete action and identifying potential solutions. At the local level, individuals and communities can act directly in the transition to more sustainable lifestyles, whether in lifestyle choices or work practices. At a broader level, community participation and collective action can improve resilience and boost mental well-being.

Emotion-focused coping involves things we do to help calm the stressed emotions that arise when taking seriously the planetary health crisis we find ourselves in. Taking care of your emotional state requires a deliberate approach to self-care, such as spending time with like-minded people (never try to tackle planetary health issues alone), analyzing the endless stream of bad news on our phones and screens, knowing when to step back and rest our minds, and spend time in nature, which is also great for mental well-being.

Meaning-focused coping is another approach developed by Swedish researcher Maria Ojala who has studied eco-anxiety in young people. It builds on a person’s beliefs, values, and existential goals, such as their deeper sense of purpose, whether humanitarian, spiritual, or concerned with future generations. It includes strategies such as reflecting on planetary health in historical context, reflecting on this pivotal time in history that we are living through, and reflecting on the extraordinary lessons of Indigenous peoples on environmental protection.

For further discussion on the links between mental health and planetary health, and how to take care of yourself, you are invited to join our World Health Day webinar on Thursday, April 7, 2021 hosted by the Monash Institute for Sustainable Development. Register here.

Grant Blashki is Senior Clinical Advisor at Beyond Blue.

Tony Capon is director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.

Statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of WADA, the MJA Where Preview+ unless otherwise stated.