Putting the environment and climate change on the global mental health agenda.

By Sarah Kline , CEO and Co-Founder of UnitedGMH


CEO, Sarah Kline, at the third Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit which was held in Paris.

CEO, Sarah Kline, at the 3rd Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit which was held in Paris.

The theme of the fifth Global Mental Health Ministerial Summit taking place in Argentina this year is mental health in all policies. Many of the sessions continue discussions on themes that have been covered since the summits started. So UnitedGMH is taking a different approach: we are taking a group of mental health environment and climate change experts to the Summit for the first time. We want to make the case to the wider mental health community that these issues need to be mainstreamed now. We want to see action at global and national level. There is no time to wait. 

The Conference of Parties (COP) this year will have its first health day and there is a proposal for a climate change and health resolution at the World Health Assembly in 2024. WHO produced a policy brief on Mental Health and Climate Change that has been downloaded many times. But mental health is frequently overlooked in policy discussions globally and nationally on climate change and the environment and largely absent from national and international plans and budgets. We need to change that. 

In 2021, only 29% of the countries responding to the WHO climate change and health survey identified mental and psychosocial health as part of their climate change plans or strategies, only 13% had mental and psychosocial health surveillance systems in place, and only 10% accounted for mental health risks amongst their climate-informed Health Early Warning Systems.

We have been gathering information and have produced two briefing papers with members of the Global Mental Health Action Network and members of other networks and organisations too including the Connecting Climate Minds group, the Global Climate and Health Alliance, the Clean Air Fund and Wellcome. One briefing paper covers climate change and mental health, a second covers the environment and mental health. 

Together these groups are making four key points that we need those working in mental health to consider now:

Climate and environmental change is exacerbating global mental health challenges, putting pressure on mental health systems and increasing the global mental health burden. Research shows exposure to climate disasters (e.g. floods, wildfires, droughts) can lead to psychological distress, trigger mental health problems and worsen pre-existing mental health conditions. Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions also have a higher risk of mortality during extreme heat events. 

We urgently need to prioritise research to investigate how a warming planet is going to impact the most vulnerable members of our society. Some research suggests people taking psychotropic medication are more likely to be admitted to hospital emergency departments due to heat-related illnesses during heat waves. This may be because psychotropic medication can interfere with the ability to regulate your own body temperature.  There is also emerging evidence linking temperature rises to increases in numbers of suicides and suicidal behaviour, increases in hospital attendance or admission for mental conditions, and overall poor community health and wellbeing. 

We need a mental health in all policies approach. This means integrating mental health into climate and environment policies like National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Biodiversity Action Plans (NBAPs), and making sure mental health is in scope of financing flows directed towards preventing and responding to the impacts of climate and environmental change. 

We cannot forget about prevention. We can still prevent the worst impacts of climate and environmental change through aggressive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of society. This includes the mental health sector and the need for mental health institutions to be climate resilient and  environmentally sustainable. There are considerable co-benefits of bold and inclusive mitigation action, for example, active transport policies that promote physical activity and reduce emissions can also have mental health co-benefits.

We hope that through bringing experts in these areas to the Global Mental Health Summit we can underscore the need for mental health in all policies – especially in those policies addressing climate change and the environment.

Read the briefing papers: Mental health and the environment; Mental health and climate change

Read WHO Mental Health and Climate Change Policy Brief

Find out more about the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change