No mental health without planetary health

4 April 2022

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

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

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

Extreme weather events such as the current floods along the east coast of Australia are entirely consistent with the scientific predictions of a changing climate as reiterated in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

The IPCC has for a long time been predicting worsening bushfires such as the Australian 2019–20 bushfires, which burnt over 17 million hectares of land, destroyed 3094 houses and resulted in 33 deaths directly.

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

Not surprisingly, Australians are worried about climate change, and people are experiencing additional 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 problem that is impacting on mental health. As we clear forests and remove habitat, we bring wild animals closer to human settlements, increasing the risk of pathogen spillover from animals to humans. This is an example of a hidden cost for human health from deforestation.

The mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been substantial, with a report in The Lancet estimating the impact of the pandemic as an additional 53 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76 million cases of anxiety disorders. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 80 000 people have contacted Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service.

So how can people who are concerned about planetary health problems cope during these challenging times? We propose three psychological strategies.

Problem-solving coping focuses our attention on finding information, taking concrete actions and identifying pathways to solutions. At a local level, individuals and communities can take direct action in the transition to more sustainable ways of living whether that be in lifestyle choices or work practices. On a broader level, community participation and collective action can improve resilience and strengthen mental wellbeing.

Emotion-focused coping involves things that we do to help calm the stressed emotions that arise when one takes seriously the planetary health crisis in which we find ourselves. Taking care of one’s 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), titrating down the endless flow of bad news on our phones and screens, knowing when to back off and rest the mind, and spending time in nature, which is also excellent for mental wellbeing.

Meaning-focused coping is another approach developed by Swedish researcher Maria Ojala who has been researching eco-anxiety among young people. It draws on one’s beliefs, values and existential goals, for example one’s deeper sense of purpose, whether it be humanitarian, spiritual or concern about future generations. It includes strategies such as thinking about planetary health in a historical context, reflecting on this watershed period of history we are living through, and reflecting on the extraordinary lessons from Indigenous peoples about caring for the environment.

This article was published in MJA Insight under the title No mental health without planetary health

Grant Blashki is Lead Clinical Adviser at Beyond Blue.

Tony Capon is Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.