How do environmental factors affect mental health in Europe?

AP23 G 1030 Impatti01

Analysis of the results published in the latest report Headway - A new roadmap in Mental Health (2022), an initiative created by Think Tank The European House – Ambrosetti in partnership with Angelini Pharma. 

The environmental context has been recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the causes that has an impact on the people mental health. The WHO stressed how discovering and recognizing the mechanisms determining the connection between healthy natural environments and mental health benefits is a way to simultaneously achieve healthier individuals and environment. The effectiveness of tackling environmental factors is determined by the possibility of reducing and managing mental health risk at a, potentially, lower cost.  

The potential exposure of humans to sunlight, air pollution, earthquake, built environmental, urbanization and climate change represent some of the environmental elements that seem to affect mental health remarkably, as points out the 2022 Headway report: A new roadmap in Mental Health 2.0, by the European House – Ambrosetti, an Italian Think Tank, together with Angelini Pharma.  

According to the report, one of the environmental points that impact first the mental health is the potential exposure of humans to sunlight. The exposure to sunlight boots Vitamin D intakes. It has been shows that low levels of this vitamin may be associated with a higher risk of developing cancer, diabetes high blood pressure, schizophrenia and depression. 

Pollution isn't just bad for lungs  

The relationship between air pollution and physical health is well investigated while the relationship with mental health still has limited evidence. The main challenge comes from the positive and negative confounding factors affecting the true size of the impact. However, a concerning fact, stated by the The World Health Organization, is that 9 out of 10 people worldwide are estimated to be exposed to high levels of outdoor air pollutants. 

The earthquakes impact on mind  

The link between mental health and earthquakes is complicated and multi-dimensional. Among negative effects, developing both in the short- and long-term, the following can be listed: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide risk, anxiety and substance use disorder. Particularly, the rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered from earthquake reach 87%. The symptoms triggered by fear during the earthquake, can show up by the re-experiencing the traumatic event.  

Poverty and overcrowding conditions 

Between the built environmental factors that affect the mental health there are the Poor Housing and Overcrowding. Some studies highlighted that people living in poor housing condition had a higher risk of experiencing mental ill health. An alarming factor is that people with a mental health disorders are 1.5 times more likely to live in poor housing conditions with respect to the general population. The main impacts of poor housing conditions on mental health are stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems and substance use disorder. Furthermore, several studies have reported a direct association between crowding and adverse health outcomes, as well as a connection with poor educational attainment levels.  

Lack of green spaces 

Last but not least, urbanization is associated with increasing incidence of mental health disorders. Research has been focusing on the impact of urban and peri-urban green and blue space on mental health. There is a general consensus that green spaces, as outdoor areas dominated by vegetation such as urban parks, have positive effects on mental health. An interesting research has been conducted following the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak since the citizens who did not have private green spaces (like a balcony or a garden) could not benefit from the public spaces due to the restrictions imposed. It has been shown that green spaces in the city are important for stress and anxiety relief and allow physical activities and social gatherings, all aspects positively impacting on mental health. 

Climate change is threatening mental health 

The effects of climate change on mental health have been addressed only recently and knowledge on the pathways between the two is still limited. Of relevance are higher ambient temperatures, which have been linked with higher risk of worsening symptoms, hospital admission, suicidal behaviors, and death for people with mental health condition.  

However, it has been found that the climate change impacts on individuals occur in different ways and studies of the exposure of frequent, long-lasting, and severe adverse weather events showed that are direct and indirect effects. The first ones are the result of the exposure to danger, injury and death; acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorders; heat-related exacerbation of pre-existing mental health issues; increased rates of violence. The second ones affect mental health through their impact on ecosystems and human activities or other physical circumstances.  

In addition, the most affected are those with pre-existing vulnerabilities, young people, indigenous peoples, people living in poverty and those with cognitive/mobility impairments.  

Something new is happening in our minds 

Among the impacts of climate change, there are two new diseases that are starting to be investigated. A recent study introduced the concept of “Solastalgia”, as the pain felt when the place loved of residence is recognized as transformed. It manifests with the erosion of the sense of identity and a feeling of psychological desolation. This is true not just for natural causing factors, but as well for artificial ones, in the case of war or terrorism. The study introduces as well another sense of grief in response to ecological losses: the “Ecological Grief”, which comes from experiences physical ecological losses, loss of environmental knowledge and ability to predict its phenomena.  

These senses of grief and pains are also linked to a new mental distress that is growing especially among young people, the eco-anxiety. According to scientific research published by the Lancet the 45% of the new generations is negatively affected by anxiety and distress about climate change