Staying alive - Health & Sustainability

Guest posts

30 June 2017

Illustration of brain with flowers and trees growing on it

Friend of the GSI, Professor Woody Caan, writes about the connections between environmental and personal health. Drawing on a lifetime of research, from working with refugees fleeing humanitarian disasters, to more local projects looking at building resilience and wellbeing, the need for joined up thinking is growing in recognition.

This piece was written during the UK general election campaign, when our Manifesto from the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) called for the next Prime Minister to ‘implement a cross-national approach to meet climate change targets’. My concerns are rather more local and short term: to plan for Humanitarian Impact Assessment after extreme weather events such as severe flooding.

In 2006 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 23% of global deaths are attributable to environmental factors. Based on more recent knowledge about poor air quality (outdoors or indoors) the real percentage of deaths may be even higher. The Health Horizons Program and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also recognise the ‘convergence of health and sustainability.’ This year WHO reported the developing organs and smaller bodies of young children under 5 are especially vulnerable to dirty air and water: The annual toll of that pollution is 1.7 million deaths of small children.

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change claims a benefit of action will be ‘better mental health’ but we need a roadmap to this. There is the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, working to involve healthcare professionals. A four nation initiative funded by the European Union is NurSus where all the partners share a commitment to promoting and supporting education for sustainable development, in the context of health and healthcare. But the conversation can be much wider.

Anglia Ruskin University is taking a lead in two key areas ‘Greening’ mental health: the use of nature conservation in recovery from mental illness (also known as Ecotherapy) and the use of natural environments to support social and emotional learning, for example the increasingly popular Forest Schools model. My public health work included a project with refugees, often fleeing from the dual issues of conflict and famine in areas of environmental degradation. Communal ‘psychological stress’ is now an International problem, recognised by NGOs like the Syrian American Medical Society. Last year I completed a review of migrant health with the Department of Health. Suggesting the issues do not stop at borders. Poor health may impact especially on women, children and people with disabilities, and untreated depression or anxiety seem quite common after leaving a homeland to join a potentially hostile community. Asylum seekers made up only a tiny element of my English review, but potential future overseas, ecosystem collapses could compel millions of desperate people to leave home.

Collaborations like the Essex Resilience Forum have grown my interest in sustainable, mental, wellbeing. Resilience can be promoted through groups connecting with nature (Biophilia) and with their neighbourhood (Social Contagion). If science aims to compose some Planetary Mental Health rhapsody, its key challenge is how to combine environmental and personal aspects of wellbeing, in one inspiring harmony.

Woody Caan, Professorial Fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health

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