Urgent need to safeguard mental health in climate change

28 Apr 2021

A world-first Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (QCMHR) study has confirmed that the mental health risks of climate change are now well established, and new research is urgently needed to guide responses that will safeguard mental health.

Led by Associate Professor Fiona Charlson, who holds appointments at QCMHR, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at The University of Washington, and The University of Queensland’s School of Public Health, the scoping review assessed the available literature related to climate change and mental health against the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) five global research priorities for protecting human health from climate change, including (1) assessing the risks; (2) identifying the most effective interventions; (3) guiding health-promoting mitigation and adaptation decisions in other sectors; (4) improving decision-support; and (5) estimating the costs of protecting health from climate change.

The study identified 120 original research studies published between 2001 and 2020 that used appropriate mental health assessment tools and examined mental health in the context of climate change-related exposures.

Dr Charlson said that most of the identified studies were concerned only with the first WHO research priority of assessing the mental health risks associated with climate change, while very few addressed the other priority areas.

“The majority of studies identified in our review were focused on assessing the mental health risks of climate change and had demonstrated that climate change was associated with psychological distress, worsened mental health, increased psychiatric hospitalisations, higher mortality among people with mental illness, and heightened suicide rates,” Dr Charlson said.

“While it is vital to understand the risks, it is equally vital that studies provide evidence about how to respond to these risks – unfortunately, our review found that very little applied research has been conducted to identify the most effective interventions and policies to safeguard mental health as the effects of climate change become more evident.”

Dr Charlson says that future research should focus on what needs to be done to address the mental health risks and impacts of climate change.

“We hope future research will be focused on investigating the possible effectiveness, scalability, and cost-effectiveness of interventions and policies that will safeguard mental health in the face of climate change,” she said.

“This should represent a key priority in mental health research as, just like with physical health, climate change represents the biggest global threat to mental health of the 21st century.”

“We hope that our review has highlighted the urgent need for research that equips policymakers, clinicians and service providers with the evidence they need to develop effective and appropriate responses to protect mental health.”

The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health on 23 April 2021 and involved an international team of researchers from the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (Queensland Health), School of Public Health (The University of Queensland), Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (Department of Global Health, University of Washington), Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science & Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UC, San Diego), Department of Health Services Research and Policy (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Department of Mental Health (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore), Mental Health Programme (QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Herston), and Metro North Mental Health Service, (Queensland Health).

Media: Associate Professor Fiona Charlson, f.charlson@uq.edu.au , 0402 556 657; Faculty of Medicine Communications, med.media@uq.edu.au, 3365 5118, 0436 368 746.