Content Warning: This article covers issues such as suicide and trauma.
When considering the cost of mental health difficulties in societies, it is usually in regards to ‘overall happiness/wellbeing’ or how it impacts productivity. There is certainly an economic cost to a societies overall happiness and wellbeing, though it should never be looked at purely in its relation to that persons contribution or worth. Ecological grief is not a new experience, but is increasingly becoming more researched and spoken about. It mostly refers to the mental health response to climate change and a dying planet. Ellis and Cunsolo (2018) explore this experience as including ‘intense feelings of grief as people suffer climate related losses to valued species, ecosystems, and landscapes’. UK Mental health systems, such as community care, counselling, therapy and helplines, while arguably much more established than overexploited countries and societies who must meet basic needs first, have been a high priority on the publics demands from the Conservative government over the last 10 years. With fears of an increasingly privatised NHS, rising costs of private therapy, and increasing use of medication to treat depression and anxiety, many mental health difficulties and illnesses are being missed. Ecological grief, though it may share a lot with depression and anxiety, is one of these.
A UK Government report notes that mental ill-health is the ‘single largest cause of disability in the UK, contributing up to 22.8 percent of the total burden [sic], compared to 15.9 percent for cancer’. It’s important to view this in its context, though. In 2016, the UK typically invested around £115 million per year into mental health research, which accounts for 5.5 percent of the total health budget; cancer research is four times higher, at 19.6 percent. Though there are many charities who also raise money to keep independent services running, such as SHOUT UK, Mind Matters and Student Minds, staffing, pension, travel, space and technological costs tend to dominate these areas in order to attract skilled and experienced people needed for service development and innovation. Many of these charities rely on public donation and just about get by. In terms of countrywide costs, only a few countries in the world devote more than 10 percent of their health budget, and it’s estimated that mental health difficulties reduce GDP by £52 billion a year, due to circumstances around job loss, absenteeism, and community isolation.
Considering the intersections between mental health difficulties and other surrounding economic issues such as poverty, we can see how a lack of investment into mental health services has a rolling economic impact across communities, societies and countries. This widens the already huge economic and social inequality gap and establishes an additional barrier to social mobility, country wellbeing and many other social goals, such as social equality and combating workplace discrimination of its many forms. Though some may argue this is due to the harsh pressure of productivity, it is also in part due to how the UK economy is vastly imbalanced between the services sector and the manufacturing sector. There are many reasons why the services sector is hard to accurately value: It is hard to accurately set the price of a legal consultancy or a legal written document when it depends so much on external factors, as well as the difficulty in the impact it has had. It is selling action, a relationship, or well-educated advice, rather than a single product. This is the issue with understanding the impact of mental health services since it is hard to really put numbers onto the impact of receiving therapy. There are plenty of statistics on how engaging in therapy reduces the debilitating effects of living with mental health difficulties, improves mortality, work functioning, and is superior to the effects of medicated treatments, especially when used in conjunction with, rather than instead of.
2020 and already, 2021, has seen many global events that have traumatised entire nations. Many of us are focused on surviving, and there is a sharp increase in anxiety and depressive episodes across the country. Nasrallah (2014) talks about the ‘transgenerational neurobiological effect’ on the ‘children and grandchildren of people who have been subjected to life-threatening, traumatic societal events’. This has been seen with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) communities, many of whom are dealing with breaking this generational trauma experienced in their childhoods as a result of their parents and grandparents own traumatic experiences. It is not surprising that we’re beginning to see this with understanding the effect of ecological grief. Where families and individuals will have experienced their land and livelihood destroyed, or have been overworked due to mass production, or have had their traditions and deep, spiritual cultures erased and destroyed by colonisation, grief due to a dying planet is an understandable reaction.
Eco guilt, the feeling of guilt experienced when one is doing something that harms the environment (directly or indirectly) is also a widespread experience people feel, in particular in regards to consumer behaviour. One classic example is the use of plant milk. Where we know that environmentally and ethically, the UK dairy industry is violent to animals and planet, many people have switched to popular plant based milk such as almond, coconut and soya. However, the practices used to create this milk (such as fire being used to clear land in Brazil, or the additional strain on the agriculture industry), is still harmful to people and planet. The guilt and frustration one may feel is completely natural, and can contribute to feelings of hopelessness. More severely, guilt can contribute to feelings of suicide and extreme hopelessness, since sometimes, much of the onus is put on individual behaviour and responsibility rather than collective action, or holding corporations and governments responsible. For some, especially those in poverty and the socially and economically marginalised due to climate and political related circumstances, it’s hard to imagine whether they might see a better world free from extreme unpredictability and risk.
Many students have become environmental activists of some kind in their own communities and places of education, for example through campaigning, writing or protesting. We already know that Student mental health is collectively not in a good place, even before Covid-19. Student suicides are common, and the OfS reported that 63 percent said Covid-19 posed a serious threat to their mental or physical health. There is an increasing concern about the impact of the climate crisis on young people’s and students mental health too. It has also been recently recognised that ‘manifestations of eco-anxiety are in numerous ways shaped by socio-cultural factors, power dynamics, and justice issues’ (Panu, 2020) with the climate crisis being also interlinked with social and power issues as mentioned above. However, there are rarely therapists who specialise in this area, and with increasingly long waiting lists and times, as well as increasing inaccessibility of mental health services, particularly experienced by minority groups, how can we deal with this issue?
Early investment in mental health services is clearly a beginning, but it is naturally more complex than this. Concerns about the NHS slowly becoming more privatised is a valid concern, especially where health inequality increases due to those with additional funds who can access this against others who are forced to wait months to see somebody. The difficulty for people to specialise in this area as well as become therapists is also a major economic inequality that needs addressing; additional funding needs to make access into this area easier for both the client and the provider. Livelihoods made as a public service provider is also less competitive in comparison to setting up private practices, which is something many people are deciding to opt for. Ironically, a reason for this is also due to a lack of mental health support for providers and staff who run these high-pressure spaces. Whatever the solution, some form of investment needs to be made in order to counteract the economic and social impact of ecological grief, which is only bound to get worse with the current trajectory of the planet. Many people counteract eco-anxiety and eco guilt through making environmentally friendly choices, for example in their buying habits. However, more needs to be actively done by big businesses, corporations and governments to take a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to the climate crisis, and all its direct and indirect impacts.
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