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Trees can alleviate mental health challenges linked to climate change

A recent report from the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) suggests that climate change will have profound negative impacts for the mental health of South Africans. Globally, depression is on course to be the leading disease of the future, but trees can alleviate depression linked to climate change.

The author of the CER report, community psychology expert Dr. Garrett Barnwell, notes that climate change is already having negative effects on our mental well-being. These effects are only set to worsen, and South Africans in particular are at risk. Most of our population will find it difficult to adapt to climate shocks like increased natural disasters, water insecurity, and economic losses. 

“The same social conditions that make individuals and communities more vulnerable to climate change… put people at higher risk of mental illness and psychological adversities,” Barnwell explains. The report highlights the link between “climate change exposures” (climate change-induced trauma and stress) and a host of well-understood psychopathologies. These include anxiety, depression, suicide, interpersonal violence, decreased work productivity, and increased hospitalisation.

Perhaps even more worryingly, the report details how the loss of arable land and sacred natural sites threatens our sense of communal identity. “We cannot escape the fact that climate change impacts pose an existential threat to individuals, families, and communities that is psychologically – and otherwise – harmful,” the report summarises.

Always look on the green side

So how do we combat this seemingly overwhelming sense of doom and gloom?

In urban centres especially, green areas have an important part to play. Firstly, they directly counteract the effects of climate change. The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the role of urban parks and gardens in reducing the “urban heat island” effect caused by large areas of paving and concrete. Trees and other plants also reduce air pollution and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 

These green areas are also extremely important for our mental health. As noted by the WHO, “Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness.”

It’s not only about putting green spaces in our urban areas, however. The type of green space makes a huge difference.

Planting trees maximises benefits

A number of studies have shown that planting trees in urban areas can help reduce stress and anxiety.

An Australian study has found that it is trees themselves that promote better mental health, rather than simply a green space like a grassy park. The study compared results for almost 50 000 adults over 45 years old. It found that exposure to 30% or more tree canopy was associated with significantly reduced incidents of psychological distress.

Another study suggests that the structure of forests may help to improve the brain’s ability to deal with stress. Trees help to absorb noise pollution too, creating a more relaxing environment.

It doesn’t stop there though. Trees provide a highly biodiverse natural habitat for a host of creatures. One study found that both vegetation cover and bird abundances were positively associated with reduced depression, anxiety, and stress. 

We have a profound need for this connection with the natural world – trees form the framework within which this can take place. In countries like Japan, the practice of “forest bathing” is used as a form of ecotherapy to improve health. This simply means immersing oneself in the natural surroundings of the forest. It is a way to consciously reconnect with the natural environment. This is a connection that many of us do not even realise we have lost. 

Inspiring hope for future generations

The CER report highlights the fact that children are particularly vulnerable to the negative mental health impacts of climate change. This is why tree planting initiatives in local communities can make a substantial positive impact.

The CER report notes that hope, happiness, a sense of self-worth, and trust in the world can all be challenged and dulled by negative experiences. Children may feel overwhelmed by fear of what is to come from the climate crisis.

Targeted tree planting donations, interventions, and education can help to alleviate these fears. Food & Trees for Africa’s tree planting programmes and community nurseries help to ensure that some of South Africa’s most disadvantaged communities are given access to the positive mental health benefits of trees and other green areas.

By planting trees, we hold on to the roots of our own connection with the natural world. We also put down new roots. From these will grow a communal sense of positive change, improved mental health, and hope for the future.

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