Climate change poses serious risks to people’s mental health and well-being, the agency said, which concurs with a report published in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that provides governments with scientific information to inform their climate policies.
The IPCC study revealed that rapidly increasing climate change is a rising threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being, from emotional distress to anxiety, depression, grief, and suicidal behaviour.
Step up support
“The impacts of climate change are increasingly part of our daily lives, and there is very little dedicated mental health support available for people and communities dealing with climate-related hazards and long-term risk,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health.
The mental health impacts of climate change are unequally distributed, with certain groups disproportionately affected depending on factors such as socioeconomic status, gender and age, according to the brief.
However, WHO said it was clear that climate change affects many of the social determinants that already are leading to massive mental health burdens globally. Out of 95 countries surveyed last year, only nine have included mental health and psychosocial support in their national health and climate change plans.
Protecting people at risk
“The impact of climate change is compounding the already extremely challenging situation for mental health and mental health services globally. There are nearly one billion people living with mental health conditions, yet in low and middle-income countries, three out four do not have access to needed services,” said Dévora Kestel, Director of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
“By ramping up mental health and psychosocial support within disaster risk reduction and climate action, countries can do more to help protect those most at risk,” she added.
The policy brief recommends five important approaches for governments to address the mental health impacts of climate change, as well as examples of countries that are already making headway on the issue.
Prioritizing mental health
WHO called for governments to integrate climate considerations with mental health programmes, merge mental health support with climate action, and build upon their global commitments.
Authorities should also develop community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities, and close the large funding gap that currently exists for mental health and psychosocial support.
“WHO’s Member States have made it very clear 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, the WHO climate lead, and an IPCC lead author.
Leading the way
Among the pioneering countries cited in the report is The Philippines, which rebuilt and improved its mental health services after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, reportedly one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded.
India has also scaled up disaster risk reduction while at the same time preparing cities to respond to climate risks and address mental health and psychosocial needs.
The WHO policy brief was issued on the final day of the Stockholm summit, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, the first world conference to make the environment a major issue.