Mental Health and Environment

Elise Miller, MEd

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children under the age of 18 have or have had a serious debilitating mental illness—that is even more than the proportion of children under 18 who have been diagnosed with a learning, developmental or behavioral disorder (which the CDC indicates in one in six). In this light, I was gratified to attend a meeting of the Northern California Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists last month that focused on not only social stressors, but on toxic chemicals. In fact, this may have been the first time chemical contaminants appeared on the primary agenda at any meeting of a psychiatric association across the country. Given the scientific literature associating a number of chemicals—including pesticides, bisphenol A, flame retardants, lead and mercury found in products used or ingested every day—with learning and developmental disabilities, it would make sense that at least some of these chemicals could also play a role in mental illness (see: Scientific and policy statements on environmental agents associated with neurodevelopmental disorders by Steven G. Gilbert, et al). After all, if a chemical can disrupt the neurological system, the result could range from ADHD to depression depending on a number of other factors for that individual.

But why should a psychiatrist or psychotherapist care about possible chemical exposures? Well, if these health professionals understand that certain contaminants might hinder a person’s mental health, then it may be that a patient’s suffering could be alleviated by reducing their exposures to certain chemicals. No amount of prescriptions for psychopharmaceuticals nor talk therapy is going to ultimately help if the environment in which a person lives, works, studies or plays is contaminated and thereby contributes to a mental health diagnosis.

The scientific literature on chemicals and mental health is currently sparse, but growing. For example, a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that rats exposed to vinclozolin, a common fungicide used to protect fruits and vegetables, displayed both mental disorders and obesity in the third generation offspring. This epigenetic study conducted by David Crews, professor of psychology and zoology at the University of Texas at Austin, showed that descendants of the exposed rats were less sociable and more anxious than offspring of the unexposed rats. Other studies have indicated that heavy metals have been associated with depression and schizophrenia.

Several years ago, CHE started a mental health and environment working group as part of CHE’s Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative. As LDDI outgrew the need for CHE to provide an educational and central organizing role, the mental health group went dormant. We are now pleased to announce that we are reviving that working group, which will now be coordinated by Mary Burke, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has also been working closely with Mark Miller, MD, MPH, director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at UCSF. She will start posting the emerging science, and we will plan a couple partnership calls in the coming months with researchers in this burgeoning field to discuss their studies. We certainly welcome your participation in this working group listserv as well as your posts on the emerging science in this area of interest. If you would like to join, please see CHE’s website.

One thought on “Mental Health and Environment

  1. Thank yo Elise for the introduction. I wanted to start with a respectful disagreement: as we learn more about molecular mechanisms–including through the research of neurotoxicologists and environmentalists, we get closer to finding medicines or nutritional interventions that can mitigate toxic harm. And there are many forms of cognitive/ psychological rehabilitation and occupational therapy that can also mitigate developmental disabilities. So, while prevention and regulation remain vital, there are interventions that can help those living in affected communities.

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