Growing evidence climate change affects mental health directly, indirectly: WHO

Climate change considerations should therefore be part of policies and programmes for mental health. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - There is growing evidence that climate change is increasingly having stronger and longer-lasting impacts on people, and this can directly and indirectly affect their mental health and psychosocial well-being, a new World Health Organisation (WHO) report says.

Furthermore, certain groups have been found to be disproportionately at risk from climate change-related hazards, especially people with pre-existing mental health conditions and disabilities, the report added.

Climate change considerations should, therefore, be part of policies and programmes for mental health, and countries must tackle the large gaps that exist in funding for mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS).

This can take the form of integrating mental health parameters into national research agendas on climate change and also by increasing funding for mental health support, as mental health currently receives less than 1 per cent of international aid for health.

The report said: "Given the human impacts of climate change, mental health and psychosocial well-being need to be one of the main focuses of climate action. This is the only way to achieve justice for all those who are affected."

The 12-page policy brief was released by WHO on Friday (June 3) during the Stockholm+50 conference and to mark World Environment Day, which falls on Sunday.

The Stockholm+50 conference was organised by the United Nations (UN) to commemorate 50 years of global action towards mitigating climate change.

Besides highlighting the need to make climate change a key consideration in mental health-related interventions, WHO also urged countries to integrate mental health into pre-existing global commitments.

For instance, one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – set out for the globe by the UN in 2015 – aims for good global health and well-being.

WHO asserts that prioritising mental health should be subsumed under this goal as part of the global commitment towards good health.

"Much can be achieved by integrating MHPSS in the context of climate change by supporting and building upon existing global agreements," WHO added.

Lastly, WHO said that governments should prioritise building mental health resilience at the community level.

Such investment creates opportunities for individuals to become active participants in improving individual and collective mental health and well-being, as opposed to recipients of aid.

WHO said this empowerment allows for better ground-level organisation for community-led initiatives, such as campaigning to reduce household air pollution or reducing use of plastic.

By organising in this way, community members can take direct steps towards improving their material conditions, which will improve their mental health.

Despite this, WHO warns that community actors should not be expected to act alone, and governments should demonstrate a willingness to collaborate with them.

WHO said: "Everyone has a role to play in building collective resilience and confronting the crisis."

While Singaporean environmentalists welcome this new report that legitimises the link between poor mental health and the climate crisis, most think that focusing on mental health alone does not address all the other issues worsened by climate change.

Ms Woo Qiyun, 25, a sustainability consultant and science communicator, said: "While it is true that poor mental health can be made worse by climate change, it's no secret that climate impacts can worsen many other existing social issues"

One example she cited was feeling the heat in recent days and how unequal access to cooling solutions like air-con could exacerbate income inequality.

A research study in the journal Environmental Research Letters published in 2021 shows that the mix of rising heat and humidity causes around 677 billion lost working hours a year globally.

Ms Woo said: "Climate change is an amplifier of pre-existing inequalities and the only way to achieve justice for all involved would be to tackle these inequalities in the first place."

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