The Importance of Access to Green Spaces: May Mental Health Awareness

By Juan Roberto Madrid, GreenLatinos Colorado Clean Transportation & Energy Policy Advocate

This May as we usher in Spring, a time of new beginnings let us remember that May is Mental Health Awareness month. As the days get warmer across the country we are starting to see more severe climate related rain storms which produce devastating floods, deadly tornadoes, and lightning storms which can cause wildfires in the west as well as being the hottest year on record thus far. On April 27th we saw an EF3 tornado rip through the towns of Sulphur and Marietta, Oklahoma resulting in fatalities and widespread destruction. You may be asking yourself “what does this have to do with May Mental Health Awareness month?”

We know that Climate Change is increasingly being recognized as a public health emergency with well-recognized physical health consequences. These devastating climate related weather events are now being recognized for the profound mental health impacts that they leave behind. Climate events are now being associated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, and worsening of known psychiatric mortality outcomes. Research is demonstrating that various population groups are at greater risk. Groups such as low-income Latino/a/e communities that often live in areas most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural disasters, and they often do not get the disaster relief they need.

According to a recent Pew Research Center Survey most Latines in the U.S. say that global climate change is an important concern with the majority saying it affects their local community. The survey also found that a majority (56%) of U.S. Latines say that the area where they live has experienced an extreme weather event within the last year. California, Texas and Florida are home to more than half of the country’s Latine population, and each state’s Latine population increased by more than 1 million from 2010 to 2020. These states and others have also experienced an increase in wildfires, extreme heat, drought and flooding in recent years.

Nearly all Latines (93%) say protecting the quality of the environment for future generations is very or somewhat important to them when thinking about proposals to reduce the effects of global climate change. This echoes previous findings from Pew Research Center’s National Surveys of Latinos, which found Latines are concerned about the financial and overall well-being of their children and future generations.

Physical Impacts- Research has long shown that racial and ethnic minorities in the US, particularly Latines, receive lower-quality health care, suffer worse health outcomes, and have higher rates of certain illnesses. Climate change affects social and environmental health determinants, including clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. Furthermore, a Natural Resources Defense Council report found more than half of the US Latine population resided in states with the highest levels of climate change threats, such as air pollution, extreme heat, and flooding. Many Latine communities face serious health risks caused by air pollution, as they tend to live within a short distance of existing oil and gas facilities. As a result, they suffer from an elevated risk of cancer. Additionally, due to toxic air emissions, asthma rates are relatively higher in Latine communities, and these individuals are more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma than non-Latine Whites.

Similarly, extreme summer heat in the US poses health risks for Latine employed in outdoor occupations. Latine account for 46% of construction laborers and 47.2% of agricultural field workers in the US. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) notes that the number of heat-related deaths will double in the next 20 years. In the case of Latine migrant and seasonal agricultural workers who depend on employers for work and wages, such occupational health hazards are particularly challenging because they typically work long hours outdoors and may be reluctant to report the work-related illness. Given the exposure among migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, they are at much higher risk for extreme heat’s effects on mental well-being, including impacts on mood, behavior, cognitive functioning, and psychiatric conditions.

Psychological Impacts- Latine communities experience a broad range of psychological responses to climate change’s disproportionate effects. Ultimately, the climate change crisis underlies an already growing mental health crisis. Climate change exacerbates chronic mental illness and increases risk of developing new-onset posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance use. In addition there are many barriers that are contributing to a gap in access to mental health services for Latine communities.

So what can we do about it you may be asking? Well GreenLatinos is addressing both the physical and psychological impacts by addressing the lack of tree canopy in these disproportionately impacted communities. Through the Urban & Community Forestry Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service with $20M going to municipalities and community-based organizations seeking to implement urban and community forestry projects as well as the GreenLatinos Sustainable Cities Urban Greening Initiative grant program made possible by the Bezos Earth Fund.

It is well documented that demonstrates a positive relationship between levels of neighborhood greenspace and mental health and well-being. Individuals have less mental distress, less anxiety and depression, greater well-being and healthier cortisol profiles when living in urban areas with more greenspace compared with less greenspace. By increasing access to greenspace and tree canopy we can also mitigate the heat island effect that contributes to extreme heat in these disproportionately impacted communities. 

In addition it is important to process emotional responses to these threats. This may be difficult to do, given the high mental health stigma within Latine communities. Acknowledging and talking about feelings and addressing anxiety and fear can help normalize emotional responses to climate change. So we must spread awareness about climate change and create educational resources for our most vulnerable Latine communities. Providing the tools necessary to enable self-advocacy is empowering and can increase Latine communities’ strength and resiliency. We need to ensure these tools and communications are practical, accessible, comprehensive, and understandable by all Spanish-speaking Latine. Equally important is using culturally trusted modalities of delivery for these messages and tools.

So, as we think of May being Mental Health Awareness month, let's get out to those greenspaces around us as well as talk to your friends and family about mental health and how we can make improvements by enjoying our backyard jardines, community parks and open spaces. This is an opportunity to talk to your friends and family about Mental Health Awareness month just like I did when talking to my friend Enrique, who is a firefighter who responded to the devastating Colorado Marshal Fire that occurred on December 30th, 2021. It was the most costly wildfire in Colorado history. Enrique was working the fire that day and also lost his home to the fire. Enrique talked about living with climate anxiety now whenever there are high winds with hot and dry temperatures because it takes him back to that day he lost his home while fighting that fire. He talked about “stuffing his feelings and emotions down” but that only increased his feelings of anxiety and isolation. Now after having sought care for his anxiety he is able to recognize when he is being triggered and he said talking about helps more than ignoring it.

Share this article

Related News

Explore All News