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Intersecting failures of humanity: the climate crisis and global mental health

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Global Mental Health Action Network: Member's Blog

By Olivia Rowe - LSHTM Global Health postgraduate student, with an academic focus on climate change and global mental health

 

Climate Change is the greatest global health threat of the 21st century. The latest report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change cautioned “code red” for human health and has sparked widespread media attention, including concern over the health impacts of climate-induced food insecurity and infectious disease transmission.

Whilst this public awakening to the damaging impacts of climate change is certainly warranted, it strikes me that there is a huge gap in public discourse when it comes to the impact of climate change on mental health.

This worries me because the impacts of climate change on mental health are significant and rapidly accelerating. Extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent and intense due to human-induced climate change, have been directly associated with the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, substance misuse and suicidal ideation. Rising temperatures also pose significant indirect risks for mental health such as through changing agricultural conditions leading to financial stress and large-scale displacement. 

As well as acute impacts of climate-related disasters, growing awareness of the climate crisis is leading to significant and long-term emotional distress globally. A recent survey of 10,000 young people from 10 different countries found 59% of respondents were very or extremely worried about climate change and over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. Climate anxiety among young people is often painted as an issue for the developed world, yet in this study the young people who expressed more worry about the climate crisis tended to be from poorer countries in the Global South. This is consistent with the mounting evidence that climate change is a huge driver of inequality. Poorer countries are paying for the mistakes of their richer, polluting peers

Global mental health in the context of the climate crisis faces a triple level of disadvantage. Firstly, 93% of climate finance  goes to mitigation action to curb greenhouse gas emissions rather than adaptation action to help countries cope with climate change. Secondly, of multilateral climate finance, only 0.5% is allocated to health projects. And thirdly, this funding tends to focus on health systems strengthening rather than mental health specifically, with less than 1% of development aid for health overall going to mental health. This is hugely disproportionate to the global burden of mental illness in which mental health is estimated to account for 1 in 5 years lived with disability and suicide is now the leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds. This inequality is indicative of the wider ‘failure of humanity’ to recognise and champion the human rights of individual living with mental illness, not dissimilar to our failure to quickly mobilise against the climate crisis

So what can we do to address the mental health impacts of climate change?  

1. Advocate for more climate finance 

Developed countries committed to mobilise $100 billion of climate finance per year by 2020 for developing countries to respond to climate change, but they are still $20 billion short of this goal. We need to ramp up financing for both adaptation activities to address climate risks to mental health as well as mitigation financing as current levels remain woefully inadequate to prevent dangerous levels of climate change

2. Support further research in this area

The research literature on climate change and mental health is still in its infancy. More research is required to help us identify evidence-based interventions to minimise the adverse mental health impacts of climate change and leverage more financing. We also need to address methodological challenges that continue to plague global mental health research such as stigmatisation and cross-cultural differences in how mental health is defined

3. Include experts by experience in decision-making processes

People with pre-existing mental health problems are more vulnerable to the psychosocial impacts of disasters and are often excluded from the policy and planning decisions which impact them. Encouraging the representation of and meaningful engagement with experts by experience in key decision-making forums can help ensure the global response to climate change is inclusive of the needs of those living with mental ill-health.

From 31st October to 12 November 2021, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be held in Glasgow, UK. This event offers a key moment of advocacy to sound the global alarm bells to the mental health impacts of the climate crisis.