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In brief: Air pollution may increase risk of anxiety, psychosis, dementia

An image of cooling towers sending pollution into the air
Alexei Scutari | Unsplash

News round-up by Conor D'Andrade

Research finds that poor air quality impacts mental health in various ways

A review from the University of Oxford, conducted as part of the UKRI-funded BioAirNet program, has found that air pollutants can significantly impact mental health.

The study analysed existing research on the effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution throughout different stages of life, from birth to adulthood.

The findings indicated that exposure to air pollutants could contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, and potentially even neurocognitive disorders like dementia.

The research suggested that children and adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution on mental health due to being in critical stages of cognitive development, with potential long-term consequences.

In addition to air pollution, other risk factors identified included individual social and psychological vulnerabilities, poor housing conditions, overcrowding, poverty and limited access to green spaces.

These vulnerabilities could include a lack of support systems, caregivers, or safe environments, which may further exacerbate the impact of air pollution on mental health.

Lead researcher Professor Kam Bhui said:

“Air pollution and mental health are both major challenges that the world must grapple with now and for years to come. This makes this area of research a vital public health priority.

“Our review shows that there is emerging evidence of links between poor air quality and poor mental health, as well as links to specific mental disorders."

Poverty significantly exacerbates poor mental health in parents and children

Living in poverty for prolonged periods can significantly worsen mental health issues within families, according to new research.

The study, by researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, aimed to explore the relationship between parental and child well-being and how it evolves over time.

The study identified a bi-directional relationship between a parent’s mental health and their child’s behaviour, specifically that, during early stages of their relationship, parents with poorer mental health have a negative impact on their children's behaviour.

Similarly, behavioural problems in children can adversely affect their parents' mental health.

Most importantly, the study emphasises that poverty has the most significant adverse effect on both parties, exacerbating mental health problems for parents and children.

Mental health issues cause 1 in 3 university applicants to miss lessons

Nearly 30% of applicants starting university in September have a history of missing education due to mental health issues.

The finding comes from the Unite Students 2023 Applicant Index which tracks students' attitudes and experiences before university.

The index shows that approximately 154,000 applicants have been absent from school, college, or sixth form due to mental health concerns in the past two years, around 37,000 of whom missed more than 20 days of education.

Despite the high number of absences, this year's applicants demonstrate greater resilience compared with the previous year, and are more focused on their future goals and willing to endure short-term discomfort for long-term benefits.

The study also highlights that missing education due to mental health problems is more prevalent among students with pre-existing mental health conditions, disabilities, or neurodivergence.

Even so, 15% of students without declared disabilities or mental health conditions also experienced absences related to their mental health, although their periods of absence were typically shorter.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

“The mental health of young people had taken a big knock even before the shock of the pandemic and it worsened during the crisis.

"These mental health absence figures are an eye opener in terms of how many vital lessons a significant number of students may have missed and the support they may need at university.”

Cases of severe psychological distress increasing among young adults

A survey from King's College London and University College London has found an increase in the number of young adults in England reporting feelings of severe distress.

The survey found that one in five individuals aged 18 to 24 experienced severe distress at the end of 2022, compared with around one in seven in 2021.

The research indicates a rise in reports of severe distress across all age groups, except for those over 65.

A monthly telephone interview was conducted each month between April 2020 and December 2022 involving a total of 51,800 adults.

Participants were asked to indicate how frequently they experienced negative feelings, such as worthlessness, hopelessness, nervousness, or intense depression that couldn't be alleviated, over the past 30 days.

The study found that the proportion of individuals reporting severe distress increased from 5.7% to 8.3% over the survey period.

Notably, certain groups were more affected than others, particularly those from low-income backgrounds.

Additionally, around one-third of adults reported experiencing any level of distress throughout the survey period, with the percentage decreasing to 28% in May 2021 before rising to 32% by the end of the year.

Experts suggest that factors such as the ongoing pandemic, the high cost of living, and challenges within the healthcare system contribute to this trend.

Increasing number of soldiers seeking mental health support due to the cost of living

The latest figures from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reveal that a record number of serving troops are seeking mental health support.

In the past year, nearly 21,000 military personnel sought help for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other psychological issues – the highest number since records began in 2012 when 5,404 individuals sought assistance.

Among the total, 4,394 were women, accounting for a quarter of all female members of the Army, Navy, and RAF.

The MoD's annual report on mental health in the armed forces highlights a statistically significant increase in the rate of seeking help, potentially attributed to cost-of-living pressures.

The report also suggests that reduced stigma surrounding seeking help has contributed to the surge in individuals reaching out.

Financial strain has become a pressing issue, leading some troops to take on second jobs at establishments like McDonald's and rely on food banks.

The delayed annual pay rise, which is expected to be around 3.5%, is effectively a real-terms wage cut.


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