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Environmental and mental health progress go hand-in-hand » Yale Climate Connections

“You have two homes: your body and the planet. Take care of them both.”

The simple sentiment offers words to live by. We should strive to create the best for what exists within us, and for what exists around us. Unfortunately, this state is increasingly difficult to attain in the modern world.

What if someone can’t afford energy-efficient housing?

What if someone has no access to environmental education?

What if one aspect of someone’s life is so costly that he or she must sacrifice basic needs?

What if someone’s physical health is too poor to manage a job?

What if someone’s mental health is too poor to manage anything?

These circumstances depict the reality of millions – if not billions – of people worldwide, and I personally am all too familiar with that last question.

As a lifelong environmentalist, I grew up understanding that my love for nature couldn’t exist without efforts to protect it. Sustainability became an integral part of my identity – I recycled religiously, stopped eating animal products, and made countless efforts to lower my carbon footprint.

So it may seem strange that there was a recent period of time where environmentalism meant practically nothing to me. I felt as indifferent to climate change as I did to the ground beneath my feet, and my sustainability practices were all but abandoned.

What caused this change? Did I suddenly disagree with the science, or succumb to “climate doomism”? Did I just become lazy?

Not so. Rather than experiencing changes in my morals or motivation, my indifference resulted from a life-threatening eating disorder I had developed. With my mental and physical health rapidly deteriorating, every ounce of my energy was directed toward survival. Fighting the enormity of climate change felt impossible when I was losing a fight against my own mind.

Progress on one only if progress on both

I’m proud to say that I’ve since recovered from my disorder, and have become dedicated to prioritizing our planet once again. But from my experiences, it became clear that environmental health and mental health are more interconnected than I had previously thought. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the successes of environmentalism and mental health advocacy are dependent upon each other.

If mental health is to be ignored, then entire populations of people battling mental health issues (and likely subsequent physical issues) may become far too overwhelmed by their own suffering to have sustainability at the forefront of their minds.

If the state of our planet is to be ignored, then environmental disasters of all kinds may continue worsening in frequency and severity, leaving very few people with protection from the dangers and stresses of climate change.

By no means are these statements hypothetical. These issues are already escalating into cycles of suffering between people and the planet – something currently seen in underserved communities where the brunts of climate change are faced, and where sustainability is inaccessible.

Call to mind a neglected house with a corroded exterior, inefficient electricity, faulty plumbing, and a hazardous location (like many homes in low-income, redlined communities). As this house continues falling apart, wasting energy, and exposing its residents to toxic chemicals, it contributes to the negative effects of pollution and climate change. Conversely, climate change will also harm the house, as its decaying framework won’t survive extreme weather conditions.

In the other direction, this house harms its owner. Its residents will be faced with excessive repair fees for these damages, while facing chronic stress and constant exposure to toxic pollutants. As the homeowner suffers mentally and physically, he or she may struggle to maintain a living-wage job or afford healthcare – making it even more difficult to seek refuge from environmental hazards.

In more measurable terms, this vicious cycle of “environ-mental health” is flooding our communities with emotional and financial stress. Mental health related issues cost the global economy approximately $1 trillion U.S. dollars annually in lost productivity, the World Health Organization reports. And insurance broker Swiss Re estimates that climate change could cut $23 trillion dollars from the global economy in the coming decades. Left unaddressed, the cycle will continue to perpetuate itself and the costs will rise, leaving us no choice but to reactively pour funding into disaster relief and damage control.

But this cycle can be changed. It’s entirely possible to steer this ship in another direction, which is why those able to do so must channel our urgency into collective action for the sake of our earth and its inhabitants. We can reform the factors contributing to these cycles -mental health crises, poverty, racial injustice, education disparities, inaccessible healthcare, gender inequality, food distribution, and pollution, to name a few – so we can create healthier communities while protecting our planet.

With a more equal distribution of essential resources, more sustainable development, and implementation of policies and programs targeting “environ-mental health,” the future of our world might hold generations of resilient individuals who are prepared to improve Earth’s conditions at no detriment to themselves.

If we can agree that all people deserve the opportunity to care for their two homes, then we can agree to educate and act so the sentiment topping these thoughts can become universally possible.

Michelina Schach is Lead Coordinator of the Sunshine Movement’s Tampa, Florida, chapter. A 2021 graduate of Tampa Preparatory School, where she was active in a range of environmental and health programs, she is interning in Tampa during a planned gap year before beginning university studies. She is especially interested in social, ethical, and political dimensions of climate change.  

Editor’s note:  This column is adapted from the author’s earlier version posted on Sustain The Mag: an online media platform dedicated to environmentally-conscious living.

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