Why mental health is key to health discussions at COP: the imperative is to act now
Written by Alessandro Massazza , Policy & Advocacy Advisor at United for Global Mental Health.
Climate change is worsening mental health now by increasing the risk of new mental health problems, worsening pre-existing mental health problems, and increasing the vulnerability of people with mental health problems. The cost of mental health conditions as a direct result of climate-related hazards, air pollution and inadequate access to green space is projected to reach nearly US$47 billion per year by 2030. It is therefore paramount for policy makers and the wider international community to fully integrate mental health considerations into climate change mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage in this and future COPs.
The 28th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) has opened today in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. COPs are where world leaders come together to work together on solutions to address climate change. This year’s COP is particularly important for the health community given that, for the first time ever, one of the days will be dedicated to health.
In past years, the impact that climate change is having on health has become increasingly apparent. From facilitating the spread of vector-borne diseases to worsening respiratory conditions, climate change has been described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a fundamental threat to human health.
Increasing amounts of evidence are also highlighting the negative impacts that climate change is having on mental health. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body responsible for assessing the scientific evidence on climate change, declared that there is very high confidence that climate change has already negatively impacted mental health globally, and is expected to worsen with future climate change. Exposure to extreme weather events such as storms can expose people to potentially traumatic events increasing the risk of developing mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, or substance misuse. Extreme weather events can also worsen known social determinants of mental health such as poverty, having a further negative impact on mental health problems. Increasing temperatures and heat waves have also been shown to worsen mental health. During heatwaves, people with pre-existing mental health problems are at higher risk of dying, hospital admissions for mental health problems can increase, and suicides rates can rise. These impacts are not felt equally. The most vulnerable communities such as people living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), Indigenous people, outdoor workers, and homeless people are being hit the hardest, despite having been historically the least responsible for climate change.
Despite this evidence, far too little attention to date has been paid to the mental health consequences of climate change in the policy space. A report released in the leadup to COP28 by the WHO highlighted how mental health remains largely absent within country commitments to meeting the Paris Agreement, the global plan to keep global temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This report showed that mental health was the second last health outcome included within nationally determined contributions (NDCs, that is, countries’ short- to medium-term climate goals) and the last health outcome included within the long-term strategies (LT-LEDS).
As United for Global Mental Health, we are calling for mental health to be given the same recognition as physical health within discussions at COP28. Because there are multiple steps that policy makers can take to ensure that mental health is protected and promoted in the context of a changing climate. The Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN) has produced a policy brief outlining these – from integrating mental health considerations within National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) to allocating increased finance to domestic health and climate policies to prevent and respond to the mental health impacts of environmental degradation and climate change. The WHO has also produced a policy brief that provides five key recommendations on potential approaches to address the mental health impacts of climate change.
There are several mental health events taking place at COP28 which we fully support – information summarized here. Additionally, an increasing number of actors working at the intersection between health and climate change have spelt out the importance of including mental health in this area of work at COP28 including shared narrative produced by more than 50 organizations to accelerate joint action on climate and health highlighted mental health as a key outcome impacted by climate change. Similarly, the priorities for a Healthy COP28, developed by the Global Climate & Health Alliance, includes mentions of mental health throughout.
As United for Global Mental Health, we applaud these efforts as important first steps towards better integration of mental health within COP. Given the growing recognition of the impacts that climate change is having on mental health, now is the time for action to ensure that everyone has the right to enjoy the highest attainable level of mental health, even in the context of a changing climate.