Why mental health is a priority for action on climate change

WHO’s new policy brief highlights action for countries

Climate change poses serious risks to mental health and well-being, concludes a new WHO policy report presented today at the Stockholm+50 conference. The Organization is therefore calling on countries to include mental health support in their response to the climate crisis, citing examples where several pioneering countries have done so effectively.

The findings coincide with a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in February this year. The IPPC revealed that rapidly increasing climate change poses a growing threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being; from emotional distress to anxiety, depression, grief and suicidal behaviour.

“The impacts of climate change are becoming an increasingly private part of our daily lives and there is very little specialist mental health support available for people and communities facing climate-related hazards and long-term risk,” said Dr Maria Neira, director of Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at WHO.

The mental health impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed, with certain groups disproportionately affected depending on factors such as socio-economic status, gender and age. However, it is clear that climate change is affecting many of the social determinants that are already leading to huge mental health problems globally. A 2021 WHO survey of 95 countries found that only 9 had so far included mental health and psychosocial support in their national health and climate change plans.

“The impacts of climate change are compounding the already extremely challenging situation for mental health and mental health services globally. There are nearly 1 billion people living with mental illness, but in low- and middle-income countries, 3 out of 4 do not have access to the services they need,” said Devora Kestel, Director of the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO. “By strengthening mental health and psychosocial support within disaster risk reduction and climate action, countries can do more to help protect those most at risk.”

The new WHO policy brief recommends 5 important approaches for governments to address the impacts of climate change on mental health:

  • integrating climate considerations with mental health programs;
  • integrating mental health support with climate action;
  • building on global commitments;
  • developing community-based approaches to reducing vulnerabilities; and
  • filling the large funding gap that exists for mental health and psychosocial support.

“WHO Member States have clearly shown that mental health is a priority for them. We are working closely with countries to protect people’s physical and mental health from climate threats,” said Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO climate chief and IPCC lead author.

There are some good examples of how this can be done, for example in the Philippines, which rebuilt and improved its mental health services after the impact of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, or in India, where a national project increased disaster risk reduction in the country while preparing cities to respond to climate risks and address mental health and psychosocial needs.

The Stockholm Conference marks the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and recognizes the importance of environmental determinants for both physical and mental health.

Note to editors

WHO defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which each individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

WHO defines mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) as “any type of local or external support that aims to protect or promote psychosocial well-being and/or prevent or treat mental disorders”.

For more information please contact:

WHO media inquiries: [email protected]

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