WHO examines effects of climate change on mental health

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a policy report to address the increasingly strong and long-lasting impacts that climate change is having directly and indirectly on the mental health and psychosocial well-being of people. In addition to the increasing incidence of mental disorders (eg, emotional distress, stress, the Depression, and suicidal behavior) affecting people around the world, the WHO has warned of new emerging syndromes that are directly linked to climate change, such as “ecotrauma”. This term refers to anxiety about the doomsday scenario that is expected to result from the transformation of ecosystems by human activity.

Two weeks after the release of the policy report, which incorporates key policies for countries to tackle one of the biggest challenges, the WHO has released its biggest review of global mental health since the turn of the century. The work provides a model for governments, academics, health professionals and civil society to become key players in addressing the mental health issues our society is going through.

As the document points out, almost a billion people, including 14% of adolescents worldwide, were living with a mental health disorder in 2019. Suicide accounted for more than one in 100 deaths and 58% of cases occurred before the age of 50. Mental health disorders are already the leading cause of disability worldwide, and people with serious but preventable illnesses die on average 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population.

The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically worsened mental health conditions, especially in populations such as minors. Therefore, many experts refer to this public health phenomenon as a new great pandemic. “I’m not sure it’s correct to call a collection of mental health issues a pandemic, but the reality is that many countries are largely ignoring or forgetting about this crisis,” said Sarah Sheppard, communications manager at WHO, to Univadis Spain. According to the expert, “Stigma and a lack of understanding are the main drivers of these problems and have been one of the reasons for the lack of funding for mental health for decades. Mental health receives less than 1% of the international health assistance”. Univadis recently asked Sheppard about these challenges.

Univadis: As data provided in the recently released Mental Health and Climate Change Policy Brief show, there are large gaps in many countries between mental health needs and the services and systems available to meet them. Where do you start to change this reality?

Shepherd: The simplest answer to improving the situation we face starts with a shift in people’s priorities when it comes to valuing mental health. This would lead to greater investment in human and financial resources for mental health services and systems. However, the challenge lies in the complexity of the problem. In the report we have just published, we provide comprehensive recommendations on how to transform mental health systems for all, for example by trying to integrate climate change considerations into mental health policies and programs or by building on existing global commitments, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or the Paris Agreement.

Univadis: Is there evidence that mental illnesses and disorders affect certain populations more than others, such as women, for example?

Shepherd: The prevalence of mental disorders varies by condition and by sex and age. In general, I don’t think you can say that mental health conditions or disorders affect women more than men. There are groups at risk, but vulnerability depends on the context and varies a lot. Of course, social determinants such as poverty, unstable housing, and exposure to adversity can significantly increase risk.

Univadis: According to statistics recently provided by the WHO, changes in the environment directly and indirectly affect people’s mental health and psychosocial well-being. The new report highlights the gap between countries when it comes to solving this complex problem. Is there a country leading policy or innovative initiatives in this regard?

Shepherd: Yes, many case studies in the policy brief highlight important work in this area. There are strong examples which are highlighted in the summary. One of them is India and its resilient cities program. Focusing on disaster risk reduction, climate resilience and mental health and psychosocial support at the city level, this project is a collaboration between the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the National Institute Indian Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), which started in 2017.

Univadis: In addition to mental health, we see how climate change is causing the emergence and resurgence of zoonoses, such as the pandemic caused by the coronavirus and now monkeypox.

Shepherd: Mike Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO, said in early June that the increase in zoonoses increases the risk of new pandemics. Infections transmitted from animals to humans, such as Ebola, COVID-19 or monkeypox, have multiplied in recent years. Climate change alters the conditions of pathogens and zoonotic disease vectors and their distribution. Increased displacement, for example, allows them to spread faster and more uncontrollably.

Human health, including mental health, is linked to animal health. As various materials made available to us as part of our World Health Day 2022 campaign examine, the links between planetary health and human health are inextricable.

Univadis: How is it possible that as scientific progress advances and more powerful and efficient technologies develop, we become increasingly vulnerable to environmental phenomena?

Shepherd: Scientific advances are improving our understanding of the quality and magnitude of the health impacts of climate change, including the identification of the most vulnerable groups, as well as adaptation and mitigation measures that would help reduce its health consequences. At the same time, climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying. Technological advances have a role to play in mitigation, especially tools that reduce our reliance on burning fossil fuels, as well as adaptation to climate change. For example, early warning systems for extreme weather events could reduce the vulnerabilities mentioned in your question.

On the other hand, the measures proposed by the latest report on mental health and climate change have multiple effects. Some are particularly powerful and do not depend too much on new technologies. These include changing our mode of transport to physically active and low-emission means of travel (walking, cycling), the benefits of which are already more than proven both for the environment and for human health.

This article was translated from Univadis Spain.

Editor’s note: The Univadis Spain story inadvertently misspelled the name of the interview subject. The correct spelling is Sheppard.

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