Winding garden path

Mental health and the underfunded environmental determinants

By Liz Gadd 10 May 2021 3 minute read

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is Nature. It is a timely opportunity to reflect on the connections between mental health and the environment. The Mental Health Foundation’s research on mental health in the pandemic reported that 45% of us felt access to green spaces were vital for our mental health over the last year. In parallel to nature’s support for our mental health we also know that climate anxiety is rising, particularly among young people. Funders should be aware, however, that the interlinkages between mental health and the environment run much deeper and are more complex than climate anxiety or a mood lifting walk in the park.

It is widely documented that mental health is affected by a complex interplay of genetic, psychological, social / lifestyle factors, and environmental exposures. In recent years evidence of the environmental determinants of mental health has grown, yet these emerging concerns are often under the radar in the third sector.

Air pollution has been linked to schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Even small increases in air pollution are linked to rises in more common mental health issues such as depression. For example, one study reported that an incremental increase in NO2 heightened the risk of common mental disorders by 39%. Exposure to air pollution in childhood is linked to poor mental health by the age of 18; which is a social justice issue as well as an intergenerational justice issue, given air pollution is known to disproportionately affect BAME communities.

Toxins, such as pesticides, are linked to depression and psychiatric disordersEndocrine disrupting chemicals (found in everyday items such as solvents, non-stick pans, and some plastics) are thought to be linked with an increase in neuropsychiatric disorders including autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, aggressiveness and depression. As well as affecting our hormones, toxins can also alter the composition of the microbiome in our gut, which is increasingly suspected to play a role in how we think, feel and act. We know our gut health is affected by lifestyle factors; it is also suspected that toxins in our diet, toiletries, make-up and cleaning products—as well as air pollution—can affect our microbiome and in turn our mental health. Sadly, in a more direct link, toxins play a tragic role in suicide, with 15-20% of global suicides per year facilitated through ingestion of pesticides.

Environmental Funders Network’s latest Where the Green Grants Went research reported that 0.2% of the UK’s environmental philanthropy is directed to support the ‘Cinderella issue’ of toxins and pollution. With less than ~4% of overall UK philanthropy supporting environmental causes, that indicates something in the region of ~0.05% of UK philanthropy addressing toxin and pollution issues. This pales in contrast to the knowledge that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental health issue every year and the global cost of poor mental health to the economy between 2011 and 2030 is estimated to be $16 trillion.

It’s not just mental health affected either, of course. Toxins and pollution have also been shown or are suspected to play a role in a broad range of wider health issues. Air pollution is linked with premature death (including from Covid-19), cardiovascular diseaseinfertilitydementiaAlzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s diseasediabetesasthmacancer and much more. Toxins such as pesticides and hormone disrupting chemicals are linked with endocrine disorders; fertility; obesityParkinson’s disease; asthma; depression and anxiety; attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and cancer, including leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The problems philanthropy seeks to support are messy and complicated. In many areas single-issue solutions are increasingly rare as funders and charities recognise the need for more holistic approaches that take account of complexity. The environmental determinants of mental health, as well as physical health, hold an abundance of opportunities for funders and their partners to identify and implement win-win solutions to both challenges. Both health and environmental funders have a key role to play in increasing the focus on and funding for the environmental determinants of health, including our mental health.

Liz Gadd is a trustee of the Environmental Funders Network, trustee of Pesticide Action Network UK, and Principal for Effective Philanthropy at NPC.

This blog is also published on Environmental Funders Network’s website.

In recent years, evidence of the environmental determinants of mental health has grown, yet these emerging concerns are often under the radar in the third sector #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek Click To Tweet