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The relationship between mental health and biodiversity

By Shalinder Carter  |  
May 13, 2021  |  
6 minutes read

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll on people’s mental health. In a recent study by the Office for National Statistics, the number of UK adults that reported symptoms of depression had increased from 10% just before the pandemic to 21% in March 2021, and according to a survey carried out by UK charity Young Minds, an increase in anxiety and a loss of hope reveals the psychological distress young people have endured as a result of the pandemic. 

The UK is not alone here – the vast majority of countries globally have experienced a spike in mental health issues. In the US for example, mental health issues have increased at an alarming rate during the pandemic. America’s leading mental health charity Mental Health America (MHA) published a report revealing that more Americans are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm compared to previous years recorded by their screening programme which first began in 2014. The same study found that black, indigenous, and ethnic minority groups suffer disproportionately with mental health issues, mirroring the greater direct impacts of the pandemic that they are experiencing compared to their white counterparts. A recent paper published by Philanthropy Impact highlights that 81% of global mental health disorders have been recorded in low and middle income countries, where in many ways they have been hit the hardest during the pandemic, with low mental health resources and significantly differing standards of quality in mental health services owing to levels of poverty.  

Biodiversity and mental health: joining the conversations together

Running parallel to the upsurge in mental health issues across the globe is the disturbing loss of biodiversity and nature caused by climate change, deforestation, pollution, and the general degradation of the ecosystem. The inclusion of biodiversity as part of what has been named the “green recovery” process has been described by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as critical for human health and well-being as well as for economic prosperity. With this in mind, researchers are continuing to unlock and present the vast benefits that biodiversity has on mental health including reduced depression, anxiety, and stress, and an increase in happiness as well as better physical health. 

The relationship between mental health and biodiversity is a symbiotic one. In our increasingly urbanised world, there is much evidence to show that biodiversity has a marked positive effect on our mental health. This has been highlighted during the pandemic, when access to nature and green spaces has provided considerable healing benefits. In fact, the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is nature, because so many have turned to natural spaces and beauty to support themselves during the challenges of the past year. Similarly, Thrive Global points out that our mental health issues are leading us to make decisions that are destroying the planet. People who are mentally exhausted due to prolonged stress are having an adverse effect on the earth’s biodiversity. Clearly, conversations around mental health and biodiversity can be brought together and tackled as a connected issue.

Interconnecting the SDGs

Mental health is included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 3.4). It plays a significant role in reaching the 2030 targets. The SDGs are  “indivisible” and interconnected. As such,  it is crucial to tackle mental health together with issues such as climate change and the perseveration of biodiversity if we are to truly succeed in achieving sustainable development targets. 

Investing in mental health and biodiversity

The Institute for European Environmental Policy recently published a briefing on mental health and the environment. This suggested key policy recommendations including earmarking investments for the EU4Health programme as part of a dedicated EU mental health and well-being strategy. The “strong focus” was on “environmental determinants and prevention”, as well as prioritising investments that will ensure that the most marginalised and disadvantaged benefit the most with access to nature and green spaces whilst helping to reduce exposure to pollution. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) also published their World Investment Report 2020. The trends for developing countries show that whilst overall SDG investment had increased in health, ecosystem and biodiversity, and climate change mitigation; international private sector investment was either stagnant, decreasing, or there was no data available, pointing towards a significant gap in private investing and related data. 

Collaboration is key

Organisations such as the OECD as well as Deloitte have highlighted how biodiversity is integral to our mental health and well-being, urging  businesses to care about the linkages or suffer serious consequences. In an article published by Deloitte, they recognise the need to “think ahead, and focus on solutions”, and call for collaboration with businesses in order to mitigate the risks and deliver strong social as well as financial returns. The article also cites the new initiative by the European Commission which focuses on sustainable corporate governance and pays close attention to the vital links between mental health and biodiversity.  

From a philanthropic perspective, there is great benefit for funders to

a) move towards a cause-related approach that takes into consideration the interconnectedness of areas such as mental health and biodiversity, and 

b) collectively align and collaborate with other funders in order to make their giving more improved and effective, and to move closer towards achieving the SDGs in a more advanced and strategic way.  

Conclusion

The World Health Organisation has issued an urgent calling for more investment to be allocated to mental health in order to address the crisis, pointing to the severe disruption to services that have occurred in 93% of countries worldwide. Likewise, more investment also needs to go into protecting and restoring biodiversity as it underpins our well-being and our mental health, which is needed to function in a healthy global economy and a healthy planet for the future. To help address this, we must understand and approach mental health from a holistic perspective, taking into consideration the environmental aspects of people’s health. 

We at Maanch are actively onboarding nonprofits working in areas of mental health and biodiversity and convening philanthropists and foundations passionate about these causes. Please contact us to get involved. 


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