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Georgia King
Climate and environment, Health and wellbeing, Mental health

No mental health without planetary health

Georgia King has a positive vision for the future.

03 January 2023

Imagine we lived in a world of planetary health, where our ancestral stories had not been silenced and we still believed we were guardians of this Earth. Swathes of our histories have been removed from the narratives we hold about ourselves, the people we live with, and the Earth with whom we are enmeshed. Randy Woodley’s (2019) article on indigenous perspectives for climate action inspires me as a social and climate justice psychologist and researcher. It makes me ask the question: how did we lose the connecting, grounding and loving practices for our communities and for Earth?

Historically and to this day, Indigenous peoples have defended environment and biodiversity around the world (United Nations Environmental Programme, 2021). The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report emphasises the need to respect indigenous knowledge to inform effective environmental protection and sustainability (Pörtner et al., 2022). While Indigenous stories have been systematically silenced, they are vital for us to respect and recognise as we move towards a more sustainable future.

Planetary health holds that the health of humanity depends upon a healthy planet Earth (Whitmee et al., 2015). The science is clear: without urgent change we face the sixth mass extinction. We must keep within nine planetary boundaries to retain a habitable planet (Steffen et al., 2015) and, terribly, we have already broken at least four. Anthropogenic environmental changes like polluted water, air and soil, shortages of freshwater and arable land, and climate change all affect physical and mental health (Planetary Health Alliance, 2022). Increased temperatures lead to increased suicide rates, and experiencing severe weather events can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (Lawrance et al., 2021). These changes already cause the most harm to those who have done the least damage, exacerbating social inequalities. Current forms of psychological service provision will increasingly be unable to keep up with vastly increased suffering.

Greater diversity, integrity and inclusivity would strengthen our evidence base and professional landscape.

The silencing of our ancestral stories and the lack of appropriate action for planetary health are results of the same system: patriarchal, white supremacist capitalism, which serves to protect itself. This system perpetuates the social determinants of mental ill health (Compton & Shim, 2015) and thus planetary ill health. It is this system that limits our conversations about how climate change harms those we work with as psychologists.

What if we took planetary health seriously? Could we start to dismantle this toxic system and work more harmoniously with Earth, the only system that is out there to protect us? What could this imagined future look like for psychology professionals, early career researchers (ECRs), and those we seek to support now and in the future?

If we took planetary health seriously, psychology training could leave reductionism and the ties to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders behind. Research could draw its foundations from understandings that address the social and material determinants of health, such as the Power Threat Meaning Framework (Johnstone & Boyle, 2018) and community psychology. If training programmes could re-root in salutogenesis, an approach that considers all factors supporting health and wellbeing (Lindström & Eriksson, 2005), we would better support the health of our planet as a direct link to improve the health of humanity. Through doing this we could focus on people’s health now and prevent harm for those upstream.

Accountability and responsibility to act would be integral to our profession.

If we took planetary health seriously, ECRs who want to investigate psychological concepts that don’t fit the westernised system would also be taken seriously. We could learn from, respect, and better understand the benefit of spiritual practices, of eastern philosophies, and non-white ways of conceptualising mental health. Greater diversity, integrity and inclusivity would strengthen our evidence base and professional landscape. Perhaps the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic societies) bias could become a thing of the past.

If we took planetary health seriously, then psychological training would have to be decolonised. Anti-racist work would be a cornerstone of all training practices. Racism as a source of mental distress, and racism as a structural system, would be better understood, and the distress that is being faced by those in the global south today due to climate change would not be shied away from. Instead, accountability and responsibility to act would be integral to our profession.

If we took planetary health seriously, we could learn from indigenous practices to inform our work. Instead of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we could be learning from the Blackfoot (Siksika) Nation, the original founders of that theory, who were discredited and their teachings misrepresented (Brown, 2014). They had a world-view where nitta’pitapi (‘self-actualisation’) is the foundation from which ‘community actualisation’ can build and ‘cultural perpetuity’ ensures the continuation of this way of life, where living in harmony and care with each other and nature ensures planetary health.

If we took planetary health seriously, imagine where our workspaces could be and what that work could look like. Maybe we would be embedded in our communities, working alongside our clients, meeting them where they are. We could work beyond traditional ‘therapy rooms’, perhaps in open fields, coastlines, woods, helping people to ground and reconnect with their roots. This could open avenues for creativity, fun and exploration.

If we took planetary health seriously, then neutrality within the profession would be a thing of the past. It would be known that psychology professionals have a duty of care towards the wellbeing of people now and in the future, and must hold the government to account to promote the health of the planet and humanity.

This isn’t solely a dream. There are inspirational actions already being taken in psychology: the BPS’s ‘neighbourhood psychologist’, Southampton’s DClinPsy’s cultural competencies, psychologists within the Planetary Health Alliance, planetary health embedded into DClinPsy through the Group of Trainers Planetary Health Group. These are but a few of the ways planetary health is being embedded in psychological practice. My hope is that we continue moving forward, drawing from wisdoms of the stories of our past for a positive vision of the future, where our highest cultural value is care. ECRs’ choice of what to and how to research can help to create this vision of what psychology could look like, and in doing so better help those and the Earth we are failing to support.

About the author

Georgia King is a trainee clinical psychologist who has a personal and professional determination to grow her knowledge of and capacity in anti-racist work and climate activism through clinical psychology training and early career research. For her these threads are all part of the same vision – planetary health.

Key sources

Brown, S. A. S. (2014). Transformation Beyond Greed: Native self-actualization. Sidney Stone Brown.

Compton, M.T. & Shim, R.S. (2015). The social determinants of mental health. Focus, 13(4), 419-425.

Johnstone, L. & Boyle, M. (2018). The power threat meaning framework. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Lawrance, E., Thompson, R., Fontana, G. & Jennings, N. (2021). The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice.

Lindström, B. & Eriksson, M. (2005). Salutogenesis. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 59(6), 440-442.

Pörtner, H.-O., Roberts, D. C., Adams, H., et al. (2022). Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.

Planetary Health Alliance. (2022). Planetary Health. https://www.planetaryhealthalliance.org/planetary-health

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., et al. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223).

United Nationals Environmental Programme. (2021). How indigenous knowledge can help prevent environmental crises. UNEP.

Whitmee, S., Haines, A., Beyrer, C., et al. (2015). Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation – Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet, 386(10007), 1973-2028.

Woodley, R. (2019, May). The Fullness Thereof: How Indigineous worldviews offer hope to a besieged planet. Sojourners.