Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Healthy Planet, Healthy People

Planet Earth. Home sweet home for almost eight billion people. This past Thursday we celebrated with our annual Earth Day, and our week was filled with related news and programs. The beautiful images and extraordinary stories about mother nature were fabulous. The many reminders of the existential threat of climate change and global warming to the health of planet earth and all who dwell here were sobering, but…

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Critical analysis of the problem will only get us so far. Healing the earth will require the same essential elements that we know matter most when it comes to mental health and healing: Good science, effective interventions and clarity of vision, fueled by an openness to new ideas, perseverance, courage, hope, optimism, and innovation. Properly resourced.

1. Science Matters. This is true for healing our earth and healing ourselves. In both cases, there is a lot of pseudoscience. In both cases, we need to be rigorous in our research and prioritize putting what we know into practice. Replacing fossil fuels with clean power sources, carbon capture, and achieving net-zero emissions depend on armies of scientists across many disciplines. The same is true in mental health where research that spans cellular biology to social media to housing informs our understanding of risk and recovery.

2. Efficacy Matters. Solution-focused science matters. Climate change and mental health are extraordinarily complex phenomena that are both in dire need of clearer messaging on strategies that work and interventions that have real impact. Consider plastic waste, for example, which is washing into our oceans at an average rate of 8.5 million tons per year. We all know it is bad, but we do not know what really matters in combating the problem. Does recycling work? What does it mean when something is made from “recycled plastic”? We have similar lack of clarity for individuals who are seeking treatment for mental health needs.

3. Possibility Matters. Using big numbers and dramatic language to capture people’s attention about climate change, mental illness – or other important current issues – are common, but risky, strategies. Of course, we need to make the case that certain problems are real and serious. The problem is that big numbers and dramatic language can scare people into inaction. Research on climate change and mental health demonstrate the limits of fear-based strategies to motive genuine personal commitments to change. What motivates people’s behavior – whether it be for healing the earth or ourselves – is hope, optimism and belief in the possibility that our choices and actions will have the impact we desire.

4. Innovation Matters. It was Albert Einstein who said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is true for our environmental healing. It is true for our mental health. Inspired and inspiring innovations are emerging to heal our earth such as vertical farms, carbon capture and circular economies. Novel treatment strategies such as psilocybin and nutritional interventions that change the human microbiome are being explored for mental health care as well. We need to incentivize more innovation in both fields.

5. Resources Matter. Both our planetary health and our mental health depend on allocating more resources to advance our scientific understanding, deploy effective strategies, and create new and better solutions. Sure, we can spend our money elsewhere, but if we fail our earth and our mental health, what’s left?

The potential for healing is ours – if we heed the science, implement strategies that work, embrace possibility, invest in innovation and allocate resources. It’s a big if. It’s ours for the choosing.

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Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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