Air pollution linked with increased poor mental health, Bristol study finds


By Molly Bowcott, Third Year, English

We are all aware of the detrimental effects of air pollution to an individual's physical health, but are you aware of the risks it poses to mental health?

A study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry this summer, found that high levels of traffic-related air pollution have contributed to an increase in the use of mental health services. The research focuses on individuals who have pre-existing psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.

Studies have already proven that people living in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to experience anxiety and mild depression. However, little research has been carried out as to how air pollution influences the severity of mental health issues.

High levels of traffic-related air pollution have contributed to an increase in the use of mental health services

So how does the study work? Data was collected from over 13,000 people, aged 15 and over, who had been in contact with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust services (SLAM) between 2008 and 2012. SLAM not only supports people through their mental health issues, but also carries out pioneering research to discover new and improved methods of treatment.

The mental health records of these individuals were anonymised and linked with models of concentrations of air pollutants at their addresses. These pollutants included nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Interestingly, the study identified a correlation between the frequency of mental health service use and high residential levels of air pollutants. The higher the levels of air pollutants in an area, the more people relied on mental health services, compared to individuals living in areas of lower pollution levels.

The higher the levels of air pollutants, the more people relied on mental health services | Unsplash/Ryan Gagnon

Increases in PM2.5 (a coarse particulate matter) and NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) over a one year period resulted in a rise in the percentage of inpatient stays, by 11 and 18 per cent. These findings therefore seem to indicate that the severity of an individual’s mental health issues does escalate when exposed to high levels of air pollution.

Dr Ioannis Bakolis, a lead author of the study and a Senior Lecturer in Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience King’s College London, acknowledged that these ‘novel findings suggest that air pollution could also play a role in the severity of mental disorders for people with pre-existing mental health conditions.’

Following the numerous lockdowns throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of people’s mental health is now, more so than ever, a pressing issue. With this in mind, initiatives to lessen air pollution must be introduced to protect both people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Initiatives to lessen air pollution must be introduced

Not only will this increase an individual’s quality of life by lessening their mental suffering, but it will also reduce the pressure and costs on healthcare services. The research shows that if the UK urban population’s exposure to PM2.5 was reduced to meet the World Health Organisation’s recommended annual limit, usage of mental health services would be reduced by around two per cent.

So where do we go from here? Well, Dr Joanne Newbury, a research fellow from Bristol Medical School, has said that the school intends to explore if air pollution is linked to a greater range of ‘mental health, neurodevelopmental, and educational outcomes, particularly among children.’

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This study has been crucial in providing evidence to show the correlation between mental health issues and high levels of air pollution. Nevertheless, a lot more research is required to understand the full extent of these findings.

Featured Image: Epigram/ Sarah Dalton

Have you noticed pollution affecting your mental health?