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Is Pollution Causing Mental Illness?

People biking in Nature

“When people think about climate change, they probably think first about its effects on the environment, and possibly on their physical health. But climate change also takes a significant toll on mental health…” American Psychological Association, March 29, 2017

Growing up, I remember my mother explaining to me the reason that it was wrong to litter. She made an analogy comparing the Earth to a home. “If you were a guest at someone’s house, you wouldn’t just throw your garbage on the floor would you? That’s disrespectful.” She went on to make the point that the Earth is a home built by God, and therefore also commands our respect. Theology and ecology aside, I always share this vignette when I discuss my environmentalism because I think, for one thing, it helps to depoliticize the issue. There was no liberal or conservative agenda being played out in my mothers instruction, she was merely teaching me to show respect, a value which transcends political ideology.

Despite how partisan environmental issues seem to have become in recent years, the facts show us that climate and ecology are topics that everyone should be paying attention to. New research by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that climate change and its many implications can have a serious negative effect on mental health, including increased risk of developing serious mental illness such as PTSD, depression or even suicide. And as with so many problems, those at most risk of experiencing negative mental health related to climate change are the marginalized of society, including children, indigenous people and the poor especially.

Speaking for myself, some of the most memorable and powerful moments of my life have been in nature. Whether it be a sense of peace and serenity which I can’t find elsewhere, a sense of tenderness, joy and awe, or an overwhelming exhilaration, nature plays a significant positive role in my life and in the maintenance of my mental health and spiritual well being. Nature is where I renew myself – body, mind and spirit – when I do things like spend time in the garden, go out for a walk or run, or just sit and be present. It’s rejuvenating. And conversely, when I am too separated from nature, I begin to wither. And people who know me can attest to this fact. Wherever I am, my work and living spaces always must include some sort of plant life – I need my plants!

Tomorrow is Earth Day. This year will mark the 47th anniversary since the event was first held on April 22nd 1970. Regardless of whether you are political or not; regardless of whether you are spiritual or not; regardless of whether you are even an environmentalist or not, please consider the role the environment plays in your life and the life of those you love. How has a clean and healthy environment (and this includes plants, animals and even inanimate things such as a clear blue sky) contributed to your life and helped to sustain your mental health? As mental health advocates, we are – by extension – also called to be environmentalists because we understand that a healthy and functional environment is key to sustaining a healthy and functional mind.

3 Replies to “Is Pollution Causing Mental Illness?”

  1. Michael says:

    Excellent post! I totally agree Brian. Do you remember the Captian Planet show? I always wanted to be “Wind”!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey Brian,

    This is a great post. I was always an environmentally friendly person but I never thought about how keeping the earth clean can make an impact on your mental health. I will take this into consideration now. Thank you for posting this. I am now more aware.

  3. bgayTurningPoint says:

    Thanks Carl! I’m glad my post gave you food for thought.

    In addition to the stress and anxiety which can be caused by the cataclysmic events brought about by climate change, it’s imporant to note that there are also implications on mental health from environmental toxins, released by industrial pollution as well as everyday chemicals which may have routine exposure to in our homes. This risk is especially high for humans in utero because environmental toxins can have a major impact on fetal development which can then lead to developmental disabilities and other health issues (physical and mental) once the baby is born. According to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, of all of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals that have been created since the Chemical Revolution, only a small fraction have actually been tested for risk to human health, including brain health (http://journals.lww.com/jrnldbp/Abstract/2002/02001/In_Harm_s_Way__Toxic_Threats_to_Child_Development.4.aspx).

    I hope as mental health activists, we can strongly challenge the corporations who manufacture these chemicals and the regulatory agencies responsible for testing their safety and approving them for sale, while we advocate for more rigorous testing and transparency.

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