Blog Global Health Center Behavioral/Mental Health

Climate and global mental health

by John McGinley, undergraduate student at Elon University; SPRIGHT Scholar in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic and Global Health Abbreviated Track

Parul Bakhshi, PhD, Assistant Professor/Instructor, Program in Occupational Therapy and Brown School, and Clement Bayetti, PhD, Adjunct Instructor, Brown School, spoke about the discourses of climate change and global mental health with students from the Institute of Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Abbreviated Track. What are the narratives that we hear surrounding these two areas? “Take your pills” and “use paper straws” are two oft-heard phrases that sum up the largely reductive current discourses surrounding mental health and climate change. Bakhshi and Bayetti discussed the current state of the research connecting mental health and climate change, and highlighted weaknesses in the way these issues are addressed and researched. They argue that there is a need to account for social justice, a need for a different kind of evidence, and a need to think about complex systems.

The burden of climate change disproportionately affects marginalized persons. A 2017 article released by the UN illustrates the cruel cycle by which disadvantaged groups suffer more from climate change, making them further disadvantaged. Climate change can affect people on several levels, including having a detrimental impact to mental health. However, many global mental health interventions fail to take into account the perspective of the people of the regions they are being implemented in and disregard local voices. On a widespread basis, the western conception of mental health and psychiatry are imposed on the global South, an issue detailed in the book “Decolonizing Global Mental Health” by China Mills.

The scientific evidence that lies at the intersection between climate health and mental health is also largely quantitative. This leaves out important information about lived experiences. For example, in the article “The Elephant Vanishes: Impact of human–elephant conflict on people’s wellbeing” by Sushrut Jadhav and Maan Barua, people tell stories of immense struggle after family members are killed by elephants. They describe the ways their lives were affected and the problems they encountered. This is information that could not be fully encapsulated by quantitative data, and by leaving out the rich stories of individuals from the set of acceptable scientific knowledge, interventions can get away with not actually solving the complex problems that people face.

To address the complexities that intertwine climate change and mental health, systems-based approaches are needed. It is crucial that the connections between these two fields be more thoroughly explored.

This post is part of the Summer Research Program blog series at the Institute for Public Health. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.