Mental Health: A Heightened Recognition of the Role of Toxic Chemicals

written by Elise Miller, EdM

For the first time the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Monitor on Psychology magazine featured a cover story (Oct 2015) on the impact toxic chemicals can have on the developing brain. It makes sense that if chemical exposures can undermine children’s learning capacities, then they might be implicated in mental health problems as well. However, there has been scant research in or recognition of the latter in mainstream psychology. image from the APA articleThe publication of this article suggests that this sector may now be starting to take these concerns more seriously.

One psychologist who has been particularly instrumental in putting these issues on the radar of the APA is Sue Koger, PhD, professor of psychology at Willamette University and co-author of the forthcoming book “Psychology for Sustainability” (Scott, Amel, Koger, & Manning, 2016). In 2003 she attended an “In Harm’s Way” training, led by Ted Schettler, MD, MPH (science director of both the Science and Environmental Health Network and CHE), Maria Valenti (coordinator of CHE’s Healthy Aging Initiative and co-developer of A Story of Health) and Jill Stein, MD. The audience was a mix of physicians, nurses, teachers, and members of advocacy organizations. Dr. Koger was one of a few, if not the only, psychologists participating. After the training, she was inspired to submit an abstract for an oral presentation at the next APA annual meeting. To her knowledge chemical exposures had never been on the agenda. Her abstract was accepted. Subsequently, she, Schettler, and Bernard Weiss, PhD, co-authored a paper on these issues for the American Psychologist in 2005.

During this time, the CHE Mental Health and the Environment Working Group, a sub-working group of CHE’s Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, was formed to provide a forum where emerging research on chemical exposures and mental health concerns could be posted and discussed. The National Association for the Dually Diagnosed (for those with both learning and mental health diagnoses) was a leading participant in these CHE working groups and made sure that at least one session on toxic chemical exposures was on their annual conference agenda for a few years. Other colleagues in various parts of the US spent time working to heighten awareness of these issues in psychology (and even psychiatry) circles in other ways. But for the most part, there hasn’t been a significant uptick in interest as far as we have been able to discern, and CHE’s Mental Health working group has remained only minimally active.

Then late last year, without much fanfare, this issue was spotlighted on the cover of a major magazine for American psychologists. And so it goes in our work. Ideas gain traction in non-linear ways. Strategic planning and other processes need to be in place. Vocal, dedicated champions make a huge difference in getting ideas out. Money certainly helps. But sometimes it’s an unexpected interaction or an unrelated event that crystallizes an idea and makes it palpable to those who may have never considered it before. Often we’ll never know why one idea springs into mainstream consciousness while others that seem equally significant fall flat. But what we do know is that fostering a highly effective learning community and collaborating in forums that bridge multiple perspectives are essential ingredients for social change.

We very much look forward to learning and collaborating more with you in 2016 – in both anticipated and unexpected ways.

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