April 03, 2022

Recapping The Interplay of Environmental Exposures and Mental Health: Setting an Agenda

Previously we reported insights on considerations of the often-overlooked impacts of environmental exposures on mental health in a series covering the National Academies of Science’s 2021 workshop, “The Interplay Between the Environment and Mental Health.” 

Change is starting to occur, as the organizers now report, ‘Science and policy experts in the environmental and behavioral health sciences are coming together to explore converging evidence on the relationship—harmful or beneficial—between environmental factors and mental health.’

The organizers recently released their workshop commentary in what they describe as a ‘nonsystematic, expert-guided conceptual review and interdisciplinary perspective on the convergence of environmental and mental health, drawing from hypotheses, findings, and research gaps presented and discussed at the workshop. Featured is an overview of what is known about the intersection of the environment and mental health, focusing on the effects of neurotoxic pollutants, threats related to climate change, and the importance of health promoting environments, such as urban green spaces.’

Setting a research agenda is important to discerning effects, both positive and negative, of environmental conditions and exposures on mental as well as physical health. The organizers propose gains in ‘bridging environmental and psychological research disciplines’ and outline what is needed for this to occur. In addition, they set out current knowledge and gaps in understanding with respect to:

a) foundational knowledge of the etiology of mental health and illness,

 b) toxicant policy and regulation, 

c) definitions of climate adaptation and community resilience, 

d) interventions targeting marginalized communities, and 

e) the future of research training and funding.

Importantly, the paper also outlines emerging research opportunities and creates a ‘call to action for environmental and mental health researchers, focusing on the environmental contributions to mental health to unlock primary prevention strategies at the population level and open equitable paths for preventing mental disorders and achieving optimal mental health for all.’

Environmental Research in Action

An example of the type of research and findings this line of investigation might uncover is a recent paper published by a team including Erika Manczak, PhD, one of the workshop organizers. Recognizing that pollution and ozone exposure is a well-documented risk factor for negative physical health outcomes, the authors explored a role of this exposure in depression in teens.

Examining self-reported depressive symptoms in adolescents across time and neighborhoods, the study found that higher neighborhood levels of ozone predicted increasing depression symptoms over time. Since the mechanisms are not fully understood, the authors promoted more biological inquiry to help explain and address findings such as these. ‘Studies that trace changes in putative biological mechanisms, such as systemic inflammation, neurodevelopment, or stress reactivity, will deepen theoretical models.’ The authors suggested consideration of this type of  environmental exposure in future research and perhaps individual and public policy considerations. They also highlighted that pollution exposures contribute to health disparities since they are often layered upon other stressors present for those in marginalized communities. 

Further understanding of these interplays can help us to uncover biological considerations, and perhaps lead to public health approaches to preventable and modifiable conditions that will help to prevent suffering and optimize mental health.