Mental health and climate justice: where do we stand?

By Mary Sadid, NSUN Policy Officer

We’re part-way through Cop26, the United Nations climate conference, pitched as a critical moment in establishing consensus around climate action. As a mental health charity, this is not our traditional stomping ground, but why shouldn’t it be?

Discourse around climate and mental health is growing, takes on non-specific ‘eco-anxiety’ are abundant, and access to green space is increasingly cited as a mental health and wellbeing issue.  

As is often the case, people living with long term mental ill health or distress are not centred in these conversations.

Adding to the inequality in whose voices we hear on climate, ideas with eco-facist roots permeate climate discourse: anti-natalism, theories of a great replacement, and demands that everyone reduce their energy consumption irrespective of global context.

Climate justice is not a standalone issue. It is interwoven with global, racial and economic justice, with dismantling systems of oppression, including the criminalisation and neglect of distress.

Making the mental health and climate conversation about everyone’s mental health collapses stark differences in experience into a monolith of shared suffering. This is false. We are not all in the same boat. We don’t all have access to the same resources. We won’t all be okay.

Inequality and climate justice

Climate justice means reckoning with the inequality at home, which remains entrenched; the effects of climate change are likely to deepen disparities if we do not seek equality of outcome in climate transition.

The mental health income gap in the UK is estimated to be around £8400 a year. In 2020, over 40% of working-age people receiving Personal Independence Payments or Disability Living Allowance had a main condition related to mental ill health or distress. We can’t disentangle this from the gaps in life expectancy that occur across the spectrum of mental ill health and the impact of multiple marginalisation.

Deaths like Philippa Day’s are a lesson in how callous arms of the state push those already facing mental ill health or distress and economic precarity to the brink.

Trends in securitisation, like criminalising service users experiencing distress, or legislating against disruptive climate action, reflect a push towards control and coercion as the default setting in policy. The underlying force that links benefit deaths and securitisation is a punitive system.

What is the cost of the mental health sector chasing minor policy wins in such a context?

Beyond the UK and back again

Beyond the home context, we have to consider the global picture: millions of displaced people, including those who are internally displaced, because of multiple factors including and interlinked with climate. In Bangladesh it’s estimated 1 in 7 will be displaced by 2050.

The Global South is and will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, and yet, despite our role in displacing huge swathes of people, changes set out in the upcoming Nationality and Borders Bill would mean those seeking sanctuary who reach the UK ‘irregularly’ will face even more economic, social, and psychological hardship. Restrictions on family reunion and pulling many more into the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) condition under clause 10.5 are just some of the measures dangling the threat of destitution to freeze ‘undesirable’ migrants out and deter others who may be considering seeking asylum in the UK.

When people do settle in the UK from global majority countries, our takes on their mental health often invoke ideas like being ‘hard to reach’, being too steeped in ‘stigma’ to seek help or not having the vocabulary to fully understand mental health concepts.

Problematising attitudes to mental health in some communities also involves centering certain experiences and making them the default. In emphasising ‘eco-anxiety’, likely a culturally specific response in a sea of huge variation, we centre our emotional reaction over our responsibility and reality, risking minimising the experiences of others because they may not talk about them in the same way.

In the same way that ‘everyone has mental health’ is not a useful framing, ‘everyone is suffering with climate anxiety’ is also a distraction. 

Closing thoughts

Like mental health, climate change, and its causes and effects, are complex. It’s not a standalone issue and we shouldn’t treat it as such. Genuine climate justice is a radical proposition. It is not about reaching net zero with some concessions and manipulating figures. It’s a structural issue which needs responses that are antithetical to current politics.

Whether it’s deep brain stimulation for ‘treatment resistant’ depression or a way to store solar energy, we cannot rely on technological innovation alone to fix complex problems which, at least in part, have social and relational origins.

Power dynamics and conversations around climate often centre the usual voices. Let’s take the time to ask: who aren’t we listening to? Whose knowledge are we disregarding?