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Earth Day and Mental Health

My favorite thing about being a Social Worker is that I received training in all levels of practice: micro, mezzo, and macro. While my practice serves individuals (micro), couples, and families (both mezzo), and I eventually hope to start group work (also mezzo), I think about macro things a lot since they directly impact my clients. So what are the macro things? The community we live in, the society we live in, institutions like school districts and government agencies, policies ranging from local to national, and global movements like environmentalism and public health. And that is exactly how Earth Day is linked with mental health. Our physical health and mental health is connected, and our physical health is impacted by our environment. Many people also have a lot of anxiety about the state of our planet, and that of course is a direct link to mental health.


Brief History

The idea of Earth Day started out as a day of teach-ins held at college campuses across America after a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969 (earthday.org), but during the development of the plan, was expanded to be a national day of protest events to bring awareness about the damaging impacts of industrialism on the environment. Earthday.org has a full history with a timeline of events from the first Earth Day in 1970, to current day events and policies that have formed thanks to the billion global participants.


Environmentalism itself can be traced back thousands of years as evidenced by early understandings of soil erosion and practices to prevent it, as well as documentation of the negative impacts of deforestation by Plato. The contemporary movement grew out of awareness about the harmful effects of the Industrial Revolution on our planet and efforts to prevent European countrysides and American wilderness areas.


It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the profession of Social Work entered into the environmental movement, however the efforts made by Saul Alinsky -considered to be the father of community organizing, a branch of Social Work- to "unslum" impoverished areas of Chicago in the late 1930s also had positive impacts on the environment. In 2012, the International Federation of Social Workers aligned their World Social Work Day theme with that of Earth Day's, thereby more formally aligning the profession with environmental efforts.


The Environment and Health

It is certainly no secret that the environment can have significant and lasting impacts on individual health. From skin concerns to respiratory and heart diseases to cancer, we have seen a range of health issues arise over the years because of pollution. There is also well established research revealing the increased likelihood of anxiety and depression for people with chronic illness. Additionally, more studies continue to elucidate the risks of birth defects and developmental issues that can stem from exposure to certain toxins for children in utero and during infancy. Whether someone is experiencing anxiety and depression from a chronic illness developed from environmental damage or has developmental delays due to being exposed to toxins, mental health issues derived from environmental damage and pollution are a serious concern that we can work towards preventing.


We can also consider the fear and anxiety many people hold about the state of the world and its future because of pollution and overconsumption of natural resources. Hearing about oil spills, improper waste management that leads to contaminations, chemical explosions, and ongoing air pollution on a consistent basis is a stressor that is largely out of our control and we can't do anything about, a breeding ground for anxiety. Some of these accidents have tragic consequences that can be overwhelming for someone who is highly sensitive or already struggling with their mental health. Discussions about whether or not to have kids because of the state of the environment are not uncommon. Will there be enough resources for my children to have a happy life? Will they be exposed to toxins that will make them ill younger than expected? These types of events and concerns undoubtedly impact mental health.


Action Steps and Self Care

So what we can do about all of this? The answer will vary based on what is manageable and important to you. Earthday.org has toolkits, quizzes, and tons of resources and ideas about steps people can take to protect the environment. Educating yourself about the harms of plastics or how reducing the amount of red meat are some of the bigger lifestyle changes you can make that would be beneficial both to your physical health and the environment. Small changes like recycling, getting a reusable water bottle, or turning off the lights when you don't need them are also ways you can make a positive impact and feel good about doing your part. Engaging in activities that are beneficial for others or the environment is a great way to manage depression and anxiety, as well as increase self-esteem.


Being informed on policy issues and voting appropriately is another great way to support environmental change and be a contributing member of society, which according to Erik Erikson, is a developmental task for adults who have their basic needs met. Other macro ways of doing something to support the cause and improve your mental health while doing so include spearheading green initiatives at your work place, volunteering in your community to teach children about recycling and conserving energy, or writing to your legislators about the importance of passing policies that support sustainability.


Lastly, consider celebrating this Earth Day by getting outside in nature and appreciating this beautiful world we live in. Getting outdoors is a great mood booster and has been shown to effectively reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Standing barefoot in the grass or sand can be very grounding, which is important to anxiety and panic management. Playing in water can be very soothing for the nervous system, which is critical to release stress. Gardening or learning about your natural habitat can promote a sense of accomplishment and mastery, which helps resolve depression. The options on how you can enjoy nature are limitless and the benefits are plentiful.


Happy Earth Day,


Elizabeth



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