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A Research Agenda on Environmental Exposures and Mental Health

Toxic chemical exposures, climate change, and environmental justice are contributors to mental health outcomes at the individual and community levels. This commentary provides a synthesis of what is needed to advance investigations at the intersection of environmental and mental health, and includes recommended action steps for the fields. 

  • Gina Solomon, MD, MPH
  • Aaron Reuben, Erika M. Manczak, Laura Y. Cabrera, Margarita Alegria, Meghan L. Bucher, Emily C. Freeman, Gary W. Miller, Melissa J. Perry
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Researchers have long known that the physical environment can influence health in important ways, but to date, research on environmental stressors has rarely focused on behavioral and mental health outcomes. But how communities are organized, cities are designed, and societies are supported all have ramifications for mental health—and these population-level factors have individual-level biological impacts.

Toxic chemical exposures, climate change, and environmental justice are also contributors to mental health outcomes at a community or individual level. Now researchers are coming together to explore this area.

In February 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Committee on Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions convened a workshop—chaired by PHI’s Dr. Gina Solomon—that explored emerging research on the relationship, harmful or beneficial, between environmental factors and mental health. The workshop considered overarching questions, including what are the implications of environmental exposures for mental health, and how can we advance science, medicine, and justice by bridging environmental and psychological research?

In early 2022 Dr. Solomon, with members of the workshop organizing committee, co-authored an article reporting on the findings. Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, this work builds on the workshop to present a synthesis of what is needed to advance investigations at the intersection of environmental and mental health.

Read the article

 

“The Interplay of Environmental Exposures and Mental Health: Setting an Agenda” reviews evidence that connects psychiatric disease with chemical exposures (particularly to metals, pesticides, and air pollution), environmental disasters (including chemical spills, floods, wildfires and droughts) and climate change. It also notes that natural spaces, particularly in urban areas, play a role in promoting mental health and resilience.

Recommended action steps

Concluding with a call to action for environmental and mental health researchers, the article includes concrete recommendations for how to advance evidence-building, regulation, and social justice around the linkage of the physical environment and mental health. Some of these action steps include:

  • Conducting research that employs an exposome framework (the measure of all the exposures of an individual in a lifetime and how those exposures relate to health) to systematically examine environmental, social, and biological exposures in relation to psychopathology outcomes.
  • Including mental health assessments and treatment infrastructure in public responses to natural and manmade disasters.
  • Developing a national policy and regulatory framework to document, measure, and incorporate cumulative impacts of combined environmental and social stressors in regulatory decision making.
  • Broadening the field of environmental health science so that research, clinical, advocacy, and communication work includes a focus on natural disasters.
  • Including basic training on effects of exposures to toxicants in psychology and psychiatry training programs—and including basic training on mental health effects in environmental science and toxicology training programs.
  • Developing and promoting new funding opportunities that require interdisciplinary teams of environmental science, mental health, and social and behavioral science researchers focused not just on understanding mental health consequences of environmental exposures but also on developing tools for community engagement, intervention, and mitigation of harm.
  • NIH funding for interdisciplinary research centers on mental health and the environment that include multi-year longitudinal investigation to illuminate consequences across the lifespan, including lifelong prospective registries in vulnerable communities.
  • Ensuring investigators of color are given full access to training opportunities and supported to lead new investigations in environmental exposures and mental health, with additional resources targeting for under-represented investigator recruitment and retention at early and mid-career stage

Additional information

The Interplay of Environmental Exposures and Mental Health: Setting an Agenda” by Aaron Reuben; Erika M. Manczak; Laura Y. Cabrera; Margarita Alegria; Meghan Bucher; Emily C. Freeman; Gary W. Miller; Gina M. Solomon and Melissa J. Perry; Environmental Health Perspectives; DOI 10.1289/EHP9889

Find more information on the workshop and the broader work of the Committee.

Additional Contributors

  • Aaron Reuben
  • Erika M. Manczak
  • Laura Y. Cabrera
  • Margarita Alegria
  • Meghan L. Bucher
  • Emily C. Freeman
  • Gary W. Miller
  • Gina M. Solomon
  • Melissa J. Perry

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