Mental health at COP28: What’s next?

Written by Alessandro Massazza, Policy and Advocacy Advisor for Environment and Climate Change

COP28 closed last week with an historic agreement calling for a “just, orderly, and equitable” transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems to achieve “net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science”. The health community – and many others – have however criticized the lack of specific wording on a full phase out of fossil fuels. This is a critical step towards protecting the physical and mental health of individuals and communities globally. 

The impact on global health has long been omitted from discussions at previous COPs and this year was the first time COP had a dedicated “Health Day”. Mental health has started to receive more attention. It was included in the COP28 Declaration on Climate and Health which committed to “promoting a comprehensive response to address the impacts of climate change on health, including, for example, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, loss of traditional medicinal knowledge, loss of livelihoods and culture, and climate-induced displacement and migration”. So far, some 143 countries have endorsed the Declaration – read United for Global Mental Health’s response to the Declaration here

The first ever climate and health ministerial meeting took place during the COP Health Day on the 3rd of December, where 14 out of the 55 ministerial interventions mentioned mental health. That is, approximately 1 in 4 speeches. The Canadian Minister of the Environment & Climate Change, Steven Guilbeault, highlighted how “we have seen climate impacts on our physical and mental health, as well as on our health system”.  The European Commission Executive Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič highlighted how “we have set out a comprehensive approach to mental health addressing environmental and climate change effects”. A representative from Vanuatu, a small island developing state highly vulnerable to climate change, stressed how extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense. This led to increased risk of leptospirosis, diarrhea, malaria, as well as non-communicable diseases such as malnutrition and mental health disorders”. 

Most mentions focused on the negative impacts that climate change is having on mental health, with few focusing on how mitigation and adaptation measures may have co-benefits for mental health, something United for Global Mental Health is strongly advocating for. 

COP28 included a variety of climate change and mental health related events. For the first time in the history of COPs, the COP28 Presidency and core partners held a session on climate change and mental health that took stock of what we already know about the impacts of climate change on mental health, what we still don’t understand, and some of the solutions that address the dual challenges of climate change and mental health. The United Nations University held an event on climate change and mental health focusing on understanding risks and opportunities; with speakers including representatives from WHO and UNICEF as well as government representations form the UK, Belgium, and Canada (watch recording here.)  A side event was held by the Connecting Climate Minds team, a project funded by Wellcome aiming to define a research and action agenda on climate change and mental health (full list of COP28 events that included a mental health focus can be found here

Encouragingly, several products about mental health and climate were launched at COP28 including the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) Reference Group’s animation “Meera and the Disaster Rewind Machine” which tells the story of a young girl in a low-middle-income country affected by severe floods. The film highlights the inextricable link and importance of mental health and psychosocial support in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) in climate-related hazards and crises. The Australian government released its National Health and Climate Strategy with a full section dedicated to mental health (section 6.4) focusing on the importance of ensuring sustainable funding for mental health support post-disaster as well as integration of mental health considerations into primary health care and disaster risk reduction. Finally, COP2, a global network focusing on psychological resilience in the context of the climate crisis, launched its Roadmap for Care and Change which outlines a five step implementation cycle to sustain psychological resilience to allow for people to respond in solidarity to climate change and environmental crises.

Moving forward, we will continue to advocate for the inclusion of mental health in policies on climate and health. A key area of focus in the next few months will be the World Health Assembly 77 climate change and health resolution. Alongside key stakeholders and under the leadership of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, we have developed a concept note that aims to provide a summary of the key issues facing communities and a set of recommended actions to help support and inform Member State negotiations on the resolution. As United for Global Mental Health, we will build on the momentum that mental health has received on COP28, to build support for the resolution and future policies; to recognize the impact that climate change is having on mental health and to ensure that everyone, everywhere has someone to turn to for their mental health.