Higher Levels of Air Pollution Linked to Increased Demand for Mental Health Services

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Higher levels of air pollution are linked to an increased use of mental health services, according to a new study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health.

The findings are based on six years’ worth of data collected from two major hospitals within Nanjing, China, where air pollution is high. The researchers monitored daily levels of air pollution and recorded the daily number of mental health outpatient visits. They found that there tended to be more mental health visits at the hospitals on days with higher air pollution.

The results showcase a potential need for more mental health services than are currently available. “As pollution is projected to increase, we would need a better and strong[er] mental health infrastructure to meet growing demands,” said Sarah Lowe, first author of the study and assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences. 

Although this study shows a link between air quality and demand for mental health services, more research is needed to show why air pollution might lead to a higher demand for mental health services. For example, people may simply be more likely to stay in town and show up to appointments when air pollution is particularly bad. Alternatively, individuals could have worsened physical symptoms from asthma or a lung condition, leading them to seek out mental health services in order to cope. 

Lowe—who collaborated with Kai Chen in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences—hopes that further research will look at how air pollution affects people at a personal level rather than at a city level. “The ideal next step would be to get more fine-grain data on an individual’s exposure to air pollution, along with their mental health over time and what else is going on in their lives, whether it be biological or social processes,” Lowe said.