The Surprising Connection Between the Environment and Mental Health

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The environment can positively impact mental health. Natural outdoor environments, especially surrounding greenness, were statistically significantly tied to better mental health. People associate better mental health with green spaces. One study noted that the natural environment impacts our mental health. But do environmental issues such as global warming cause climate anxiety and negatively impact mental health?

A Silent Threat to Mental Health

Researchers find links between environmental problems and mental health. An Australian study found a link between dryland salinity and depression. That indicates that environmental processes might be the driver behind the degree of mental health issues in Australian populations experiencing ecosystem degradation.

Children are the most vulnerable among us. There is a link between mental health issues in children and air pollution exposure, researchers found. In one study, researchers looked at exposure to air pollution among 284 children in London. They assessed symptoms of anxiety, depression, conduct disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at ages 12 and 18. While they found no association between pollution exposure and mental health issues at 12, they did find a link between depression and exposure at 18. Another study found an association between psychiatric disorders in children and air pollution exposure. Children are also more affected than adults by natural disasters, and they are more likely to experience trauma-related symptoms.

Researchers looked at 15 years’ worth of data on mental health and environmental degradation. They found that research on mental health and environmental challenges is increasing. The major topics are climate change, chemical pollution, including psychiatric medication in wastewater, and neurobiological effects. Research on links between mental health, climate change, pollution, and deforestation is also increasing.

Natural disasters can cause mild stress, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, the American Psychiatry Association notes. The mental health of first responders responding to natural disasters is affected both short and long-term. They are often also victims.

Heat affects health, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke. However, prolonged heat also affects mental health. People who have mental illness do not tolerate heat well, namely because their medications often cause an intolerance to heat. Heatwaves can cause some to increase their use of alcohol to cope with stress. One study found that an increase of one to six degrees Celsius could cause an additional 283 to 1,660 suicides in the U.S. Another study found that extreme high temperatures increase negative emotions.

Climate change affects mental health. A paper by the American Psychological Association cited “increased levels of stress and distress” from climate change, such as extreme weather events, as impacting mental health.

The Rise of Climate Anxiety

Searches for the term “climate anxiety” increased by 565 percent in 2021. More and more mental health professionals see the symptoms of climate change anxiety in their patients. Sarah Lowe is a clinical psychologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Yale School of Public Health. Lowe defines climate anxiety as “fundamental distress about climate change and its impacts on the landscape and human existence.”

Climate anxiety manifests as worries about future disasters or the future of the world and humanity. However, it can also lead to physical symptoms that include heart palpitations and shortness of breath–classic anxiety symptoms. Climate anxiety can affect someone’s social relationships and how they function.

A national survey found that 10 percent of participants reported symptoms of anxiety because of climate change. Nearly as many reported experiencing symptoms of depression because of climate change. Most participants said they were at least “somewhat worried” about climate change, and 27 percent said they were “very worried.” Eight percent said they are discussing their feelings about climate change with a therapist.  

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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