This blog is part of the Public mental health newsletter
My journey into public health
I have always been passionate about and wanted to work in mental health. This led me to studying Psychology & Philosophy at university, and to volunteer supporting other students and young people whilst I was there. At the time, I thought I might go into mental health research, but I imagined this would be in experimental psychology, where you conduct experiments to understand why people think, behave and feel the way they do.
After my master’s I worked for Inclusion Barnet, a Peer-Led Charity and Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisation (DDPO) which centres lived experience and the social model of disability. I worked on peer support services for people with disabilities, including mental health issues. At this time, I began thinking more about all the external factors impacting people’s lives and experiences of the world. Whilst there’s a lot you can do to make your mental health better, we don’t all start (or play) on a level playing field.
In 2019, I came across an advert for a PhD studentship funded by the NIHR SPHR to look at adolescent mental health outcomes in the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP). I was particularly interested in adolescents and young people (10–25) because this is a really challenging time for a lot of people and is when most adult mental health issues start. After applying for and being awarded the studentship, I was able to choose from a wide range of potential projects because SCAMP covers a lot of different topics. Although some projects were more in my comfort zone, I decided to take a bit of a sidestep (or leap of faith) and focus on how adolescent psychology was affected by air pollution and traffic noise.
Whilst at Imperial College (doing my PhD, post-doc and now NIHR SPHR post-doctoral launching fellowship), my research focus has been the psychological impacts of the physical environment. People tend to understand that their mental health is impacted by psychological, social, and biological factors, but often they find it hard to envisage that the physical things they’re exposed to in their environment might have an impact. Over the last four years, it has become really apparent to me how much we are connected to and part of our environments. Every single day, we encounter a continuous stream of input which our bodies and brains take in and process through what we see, touch, hear, smell, eat, drink, and breathe. It is obvious to me that complexities in temperature, sound, air quality, and much more, have an impact on how we are feeling. As complex organisms, this sets off immediate and long-term responses. For example, being routinely exposed to high levels of noise puts the body in a state of stress, which can have harmful physical and psychological consequences.
I have co-developed several public involvement programmes, including a ‘research challenge’ programme in schools, and have woven public involvement into much of my work. I love working with young people and am continuously inspired when speaking with them about mental health and the environment. I am blown away by how caring and engaged so many of the current generation are. They’ve shown me how environmental issues beyond our immediate personal environment can also impact mental health, for example through concerns about climate change.
This kind of work also has an inequalities angle – many people don’t have a real choice about where they live and the environments they’re exposed to. On average, less privileged groups are subject to higher levels of harmful exposures like air pollution at the same time as being at higher risk for health and mental health problems. On a global scale, many low- and middle-income countries are at higher risk of the harmful impacts of climate change at the same time as having less resources to prepare, mitigate, and recover. This means that environmental inequalities also perpetuate health inequalities. It also means that environmental problems present compound opportunities to improve planetary health, mental health, and physical health, and address inequality.
How can I protect my own mental health?
- Realistically, we can’t all pick up and move to the countryside or seaside. We can’t all make sure we’re breathing clean air in quiet nature-filled places all of the time. However, I’d advise anyone to think about the places where they feel calm and safe and the places where they feel stressed, and what it is about those environments that has that effect.
- Where possible, try and prioritise making time to visit and be in soothing environments. For example, taking a walk during your lunch break, or visiting greenspace on the weekends.
- We can also make small changes to our personal space to make it more nourishing for ourselves. This will look different for everyone, but might include decluttering your living room, taking ‘quiet time’ when appliances and media are turned off, changing the sheets more often, or opening the windows and aerating your bedroom in the mornings.
- Here are some tips for improving air quality in your home, and for remaining cool in high temperatures.
- If there’s something in your local area making the environment less pleasant, find out what can be done in your community to make it a nicer place. This might look like speaking to your local authority or joining a local litter picking or conservation group.
The bigger picture
Responsibility for environmental health cannot ultimately fall to the individual consumer – most people’s choices are limited in one way or another, and one person’s lifestyle can only make a limited difference. The capacity for real change lies in the hands of policymakers, large organisations and corporations. If harnessed as an opportunity, there are many actions and steps that can be taken that benefit both human health and the environment, offering huge potential for positive impacts if prioritised and addressed as connected issues. In addition to all the other reasons to do so, combatting climate change, air pollution, and environmental degradation also benefits mental health and wellbeing.