Path lined by trees.

Talking about the environmental drivers of mental health

By Liz Gadd 2 February 2023 4 minute read

The causes of mental ill-health are complex and varied, and how we look at mental health issues is too narrow.

Our culture generally holds, in uncomfortable tension, two common paradigms. One paradigm is that mental health is a mindset—if you just get a grip on your thoughts then your mental health issues will go away—the government’s love affair with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one example of this in action. The second paradigm is that mental ill-health is a chemical imbalance—if you just get a grip on how your brain fires its receptors then your mental ill-health will go away—rising GP prescriptions for antidepressants show this in action.

Sitting alongside these paradigms, although often not explicit enough, is an ever-growing awareness of the links between trauma and mental ill-health. Whether that’s awareness of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, covid lockdowns, discrimination, or abuse. However, the ‘solutions’ offered are often the same, especially for those who cannot afford longer-term therapy or access to other types of treatment.

The two paradigms, mentioned above, have their roots in ‘Cartesian dualism’, which has had a detrimental impact on western medicine by encouraging us to view the mind and body as separate entities, as opposed to intricately interlinked. Mental health charities have long campaigned for physical and mental health to be given equal priority; a concept known as ‘parity of esteem’.

Without getting into a debate on the merits of these two paradigms, it’s painfully obvious that one key driver is frequently excluded from the discussion and potential solutions to mental ill-health—the environment.

What are the environmental drivers of mental ill-health?

Air pollution is linked to schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, and even small increases in air pollution are linked to rises in more common mental illnesses such as depression. Low-income households, often disproportionately composed of ethnic minority groups and disabled people, are more likely to experience low air quality indoors and outdoors. Days with high air pollution are linked to increased risks of needing community-based or hospital-based treatment, with children particularly vulnerable as their bodies and brains are still developing. Exposure to air pollution in childhood is linked to poor mental health by the age of 18 and exposure to air pollution in adolescence is a risk factor for depression.

Climate change is increasingly exposing the UK to more heatwaves and floods. There is a clear link between increased temperatures and mental health issues. Whilst the mental health impacts of flooding are not yet fully understood, the UK’s Public Health Register states that mental health issues ‘may prove to be the greatest health impact of flooding’. Eco-anxiety, related to the insufficient action being taken by society as a whole to tackle climate change, is on the rise. And whilst it is a very normal and valid response to the environmental challenges we face, eco-anxiety is having a hugely detrimental impact on the mental health of young people.

Access to nature has wide ranging benefits for physical and mental health. Research shows that levels of stress decrease as green spaces in a neighbourhood increase. Visits to green spaces, and views of greenery from the home, are also significant predictors of general health. Whilst green playgrounds can even improve well-being in schools. Studies show that access to nature can particularly benefit low-income communities and that the more biodiverse the green spaces, the better for our mental health. Nature even has the power to reduce our stress hormones and lower anxiety, via invisible chemicals (called phytoncides) emitted by some trees. This has given rise to ‘forest-bathing’ treatments.

Toxics such as pesticides are linked to depression and psychiatric disorders. Whilst endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)  are linked with an increase in depression. We are exposed to toxics in items such as cleaning products, make-up, toiletries, solvents, non-stick pans and some plastics. Worryingly, exposure starts in the womb. For example, exposure to flame retardants during pregnancy has been linked to increased anxiety symptoms in adolescents.

Gut health is now a major research area in mental health, which is fundamentally about the quality of our food production—a key environmental issue. For example, fruit and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be and factory farming is reducing the omega-3 content of fish—omega 3 intake is widely linked to good mental health. Toxics such as pesticides in our food are linked to mental ill-health and even the quality of the soil in which our food is grown plays an important role. People with depression are less likely to have certain gut bacteria and further research is needed to understand whether lacking these bacteria causes depression, or if there’s another reason. However, the research field is increasingly leaning toward gut health as a key driver of mental health.

What does this mean for charities and funders?

It’s time charities and funders talked more about the environmental drivers of mental ill-health and what they mean for our work. At its best, our sector can innovate in a way that public bodies struggle to do. Our sector is already leading some great work, including on green social-prescribing, which, as a recent study carried out by The Wildlife Trusts demonstrates, not only works but is highly cost effective.

The Everyone’s Environment programme

NPC is working with over forty social and environmental charities and funders to better understand how different social groups in the UK will be affected by the climate and nature crises and related policy. Learning from the Everyone’s Environment programme research and discussion with people most affected will be shared widely with the sector.

Please get in touch if you would like to be involved and subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date on publications and events. Funders and charities alike will also find further information in the NPC and the Environmental Funders Networks‘  Healthy People, Healthy Planet report and in NPC’s Environmental Philanthropy introductory guide.



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