WORLD Health Day this Thursday, 7 April, is themed “Our planet, our health” and brings global attention to the urgent need to keep the planet healthy for the sake of human health.

We see this playing out in Australia as climate change amplifies the frequency of destructive bushfires and floods, with severe consequences for communities, including increases in rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

As public health practitioners who are deeply committed to protecting the mental health of current and future generations, we argue here that attending to upstream environmental determinants of mental health problems is as important as continuing to strengthen downstream mental health services.

Extreme weather events such as the current floods along the east coast of Australia are entirely consistent with the scientific predictions of a changing climate as reiterated in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

The IPCC has for a long time been predicting worsening bushfires such as the Australian 2019–20 bushfires, which burnt over 17 million hectares of land, destroyed 3094 houses and resulted in 33 deaths directly.

Epidemiological attention has focused on the physical health impacts of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke from those fires, particularly for vulnerable people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease. However, the mental health impacts of the bushfires have also been severe, with immediate and long term impacts on the mental health of communities.

Not surprisingly, Australians are worried about climate change, and people are experiencing additional stress from the cascade of multiple disasters, such as floods, fires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2021 Mission Australian survey, young Australians rank COVID-19 and the environment as their top two concerns.

Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic is another example of a planetary health problem that is impacting on mental health. As we clear forests and remove habitat, we bring wild animals closer to human settlements, increasing the risk of pathogen spillover from animals to humans. This is an example of a hidden cost for human health from deforestation.

The mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been substantial, with a report in The Lancet estimating the impact of the pandemic as an additional 53 million cases of major depressive disorder and 76 million cases of anxiety disorders. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 80 000 people have contacted Beyond Blue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service.

So how can people who are concerned about planetary health problems cope during these challenging times? We propose three psychological strategies.

Problem-solving coping focuses our attention on finding information, taking concrete actions and identifying pathways to solutions. At a local level, individuals and communities can take direct action in the transition to more sustainable ways of living whether that be in lifestyle choices or work practices. On a broader level, community participation and collective action can improve resilience and strengthen mental wellbeing.

Emotion-focused coping involves things that we do to help calm the stressed emotions that arise when one takes seriously the planetary health crisis in which we find ourselves. Taking care of one’s emotional state requires a deliberate approach to self-care such as spending time with like-minded people (never try to tackle planetary health issues alone), titrating down the endless flow of bad news on our phones and screens, knowing when to back off and rest the mind, and spending time in nature, which is also excellent for mental wellbeing.

Meaning-focused coping is another approach developed by Swedish researcher Maria Ojala who has been researching eco-anxiety among young people. It draws on one’s beliefs, values and existential goals, for example one’s deeper sense of purpose, whether it be humanitarian, spiritual or concern about future generations. It includes strategies such as thinking about planetary health in a historical context, reflecting on this watershed period of history we are living through, and reflecting on the extraordinary lessons from Indigenous peoples about caring for the environment.

For further discussion about links between mental health and planetary health, and how to take care of yourself, you are welcome to join our World Health Day webinar on Thursday 7 April 2021 hosted by Monash Sustainable Development Institute register here.

Grant Blashki is Lead Clinical Adviser at Beyond Blue.

Tony Capon is Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.






7 thoughts on “No mental health without planetary health

  1. Andrew Nielsen says:

    To the psychiatrist who said that high lithium levels lead to kidney damage so please recycle lithium batteries,

    I appreciate that you are anonymous, but next time can you please not mention that you are a psychiatrist?

    Yours psychiatrist colleague.

  2. Andrew Nielsen says:

    “Consistent with.” Exactly. The 1893 flood that affected Brisbane was bigger than the 1974 flood, which was bigger than the 2011 floods. I’m not saying climate change does not exist. I am saying that people who go beyond data, or use weasel words for same, are beneath contempt.

  3. Anonymous says:

    With regard to recent floods, the experts say: “there has actually been a slight decrease in summer rainfall in southeast Queensland and northeast NSW since the mid-20th century.”
    “The climate change effect on these systems is uncertain. ”
    “while a human-induced climate change signal may be present, the naturally high variability makes it hard to spot.”

  4. A/Professor Vicki Kotsirilos AM says:

    Excellent article Dr’s Blashki and Capon! Well done!
    World Health Day is a great opportunity to reflect on why we need to take good care of our planet, our earth, which will also help look after human health. Continued climate change will also further impact world stability.
    By reducing air pollution from fossil fuels, this will help ensure clean air, will reduce the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, morbidity, and mortality – all positive news.
    Good positive reasons to address Climate change ASAP.

  5. Dr William Lancashire says:

    Correct me if I am wrong but I suspect the last thing on the mind of the Ukrainians at the moment is climate change! We are just coming out of two plus years of a miserable pandemic could we please have a little time to just enjoy ourselves before threatening us with the next disaster.
    Living life for a while might not be a bad idea.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Because of our concern about planetary health we are currently focussing heavily on solar power, and lithium batteries. However I am concerned that heavy reliance on Lithium technology as a solution may be as dangerous as relying on fossil fuel in the long run.

    My on line searching has suggested that used lithium is not being recycled and may be simply being dumped. This concerns me because of my experience with Lithium as a Psychiatrist. In that context it is a useful and effective treatment for Bipolar Disorder, but if blood levels are too high Thyroid damage and kidney damage do occur. That is a worry if Lithium is being dumped in locations where it may leach into water supplies.

    I’d like to see more focus on hydrogen as fuel for our near future technology. Solar and nuclear power will be important in making hydrogen fuel economically viable, and I’d like to see more attention paid to Thorium Fission technology as Thorium reactors can be prevented from being melt-down risks.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Don’t let it get to you.
    Like God, the meaning of life and the origins of the universe, some things are just bigger you, your understanding, or your ability to influence. The climate is in that list.
    Suggesting that there are things as individuals that we should be doing but are failing to do will likely make mental health worse, not better.
    Take a reality check; reject guilt, and enjoy life.

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