Leading U.S. Health Organizations Call for Action on Mental Health and Climate Change

By Rebecca Rehr

Last month, as part of American Climate Leadership Summit 2020, 17 national organizations publicly announced the Social Climate Leadership Group (SCLG), a newly formed effort to address the mental health aspects of climate change. The launch also included the group’s Vision and a Call (below) for others to join.

The SCLG intends to accelerate attention and responses to the broad implications to mental health and wellbeing resulting from climate and ecological change.  The global level of disruption, loss, and trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, itself a product of unsustainable environmental management, is a foreshadowing of the ongoing realities of the scale of instability, threat, and loss, our civilization now faces.  It has also underscored how the future needs to grapple not only with the structures and technologies, and systems that need tending to, but the humans that need tending to.

Both the suffering, and the engines for action and change, fall on the social and emotional resilience, capacity, connections, and ties of people and their communities—the social climate.

The SCLG emerged from a series of conversations that began with a convening hosted by the  CEO of the American Psychological Association at its headquarters in Washington DC on January 10, 2020.

We need a new way to talk about, act on, and prioritize mental health that speaks to this vital issue of our time: to endure and act within this unfolding future of ecological unraveling and challenge.  The scale of socioemotional damage, and need for socioemotional strength, requires rapid and aggressive attention and investment.

The SCLG calls for other organizations to join with them, to foster this needed focus and innovation to meet these demands as they increase, and to do so in ways that attend to long-standing gaps, underfunding, and inequities in mental health care, and in the role of mental health in bettering the places we live.

Those who work on and care about reaching everyone with mental illness, in universally promoting mental health, and in tying both to bolstering the social climate, have much to bring to leading communities through the challenges ahead. The SCLG was formed to provide a platform for the kind of collaboration and scale needed to address climate change and mental health.

Social Climate Leadership Group- Mental health and communities in the face of climate change
Vision- August 28, 2020

Strengthening and repairing the social climate – our emotional and communal resilience, ties, and wellbeing, our ability to manage widespread distress, trauma, and loss- is needed to strengthen and repair as well as inhabit, the natural one.  Mental health leaders, clinicians, and systems have to bring what they know and do to that task.  The Social Climate Leadership Group was established to help make that happen.  Let’s pay attention to the social crisis within the climate crisis.  The already present and rapidly growing harm to health, safety, agriculture, livelihoods, habitats, due to climate and environmental damage will sorely test the social and emotional fabric of our communities when we will need them most.

———————————————

The Social Climate Leadership Group was established to accelerate consensus, action, and attention regarding how climate and widespread ecological change will:

i) markedly escalate mental illness and social and emotional damage
ii) make it that much harder to address already formidable, unmet, mental health needs
iii) endanger and also underscore the critical need for emotional resilience, social ties, and civic capacity to act on and respond to climate and ecological change.

Public discussion and policymaking on climate change tend to focus on large forces and systems for managing the environment, energy, food systems, buildings, etc.  But enduring and responding to the breadth of the climate crisis and the demands of environmental sustainability rest ultimately on people and their communities, on their social and emotional capacity, strengths, and ties— that is, on the social climate.

Recent events underscore this.  The COVID-19 pandemic puts us face-to-face with both the kind of large systemic failures and economic disruption that we can expect from planet-wide ecological change., It has also increased our awareness of the need for a strong and emotionally resilient civic fabric to respond effectively to such change.

In that context, the voice, skills, expertise, and impact of mental health systems, professionals and advocates take on unique importance to the human future.  Their tools, knowledge, roles, must adapt and innovate to bolster regenerative and supportive communities.

As leading health, mental health, and climate science and policy organizations, we join together to sustain a broad network to realize that potential.  To start, the Group’s initial goals are to:

1. Communicate and incorporate the broad scope of this issue in the work of our respective organizations, and to key partners, decisionmakers, and the public.

  • The Group agrees with the approximately 80 local-level governments in the US to date to formally declare the conditions of a climate emergency.
  • The full scope of mental health impact alone justifies that conclusion.
  • Experience in disaster mental health shows marked escalation in trauma, depression, suicide, substance use, violence, and associated physical health decline in response to specific extreme weather events and changes. These effects will grow even further with chronic exposure and the resulting systemic damage (e.g. chronic disruptions to food and water access, economic activity, migration, public safety).  The scope of impact is yet even wider, including population-level anticipatory fear, grief, and distress of these losses even among those not yet directly affected, and fear of a foreshortened future, especially among youth.
  • This escalation of disabling and destructive emotional suffering, trauma, and mental illness will be, and in some areas already is, overwhelming, and poorly addressed. It will threaten and diminish social ties and local collective action and problem solving at a time when they will be ever more crucial.

2. Advance solutions, partnerships, and strategies commensurate with this scope and magnitude, with the intentional co-benefit of responding better to current and ongoing mental health gaps and needs.

We will innovate practice

    • This Group will identify priority areas to align efforts across our respective organizational strengths and priorities. Actively building population-wide emotional resilience and well-being is central to those efforts.
    • We will accelerate long-needed innovations and resources to remove barriers to getting efficacious treatment to those who need it – barriers that will become more formidable in the face of climate change – and that at the same time invest in ways we know work to build social and emotional capacity and strength.
    • These innovations include the ability to deepen partnerships with our neighborhoods to enable others –an array of community members and organizations — to adopt the skills and capability to lead in this work.
    • Working in this participatory way also underscores the necessity to close gaps in disparities and the racist and economic inequity drivers of the experience and impact of emotional distress, trauma, and illness, across the lifespan.

We will do this with more allies and tools

      • The compelling need for an expansive approach to mental health requires strong connections between the mental health field with others—especially with growing coalitions and movements that aim to put universal well-being at the center of policy. A range of anchor institutions and grassroots public health, education, youth, community development, environmental action & justice, political, etc. leaderships and organizations need to join in.
      • Heightened, focused, and ongoing responsiveness to gaps and disparities in emotional wellbeing across the population will require wide adoption of measures that capture that.

3. Guide and build foundations for a broader network for action.

We identify an initial set of six Key Areas for Action that can engage a broad range of participation around these goals. The Areas are:

      • Ready the workforce
      • Bolster communities
      • Address equity and gaps
      • Get better data
      • Work with and for youth
      • Advocate for climate action.

We will prominently and actively engage these Areas with others including our members, allies, networks, and the general public

We will work to promote shared learning and coordination of effort in these directions.

The Social Climate Leadership Group was initially established as a working collaboration of:

American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association for Community Psychiatry
American Psychological Association
American Psychiatric Association
American Public Health Association
Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Climate for Health, ecoAmerica
Earth Institute, Columbia University
Health Care Without Harm
International Transformational Resilience Coalition
Mental Health America
National Association of Social Workers
National Council for Behavioral Health
Climate Psychiatry Alliance
Climate Psychology Alliance
Well Being Trust

 

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