Monday, 25 May 2015

Anxiety, Depression and Pollution

The issue of environmental pollution used to be pretty straight forward. If you lived in towns and cities you were far more likely to be exposed to pollutants than if you lived in more rural settings. These days things aren’t quite so clear cut. Each year thousands of different industrial chemicals from across the globe spew into our environment from a variety of sources and for very different reasons. These days when we think of pollution it tends to be in relation to things like greenhouse gasses rather than the deodorant or shampoo we use. We think of the lead in car exhaust fumes rather than the fish on your plate or the vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides and insecticides. Yet, these are all potential sources of toxins, and whenever we ingest toxins it’s reasonable to assume there has to be a consequence.

Most of us live in a world where we’re bombarded with chemicals in places and at times we least expect. Ever wonder why those cut flowers you buy look so fresh and colorful and why the golf
course looks so inviting and green? Or what happens to the toxic dust that gradually shreds away from car tyres? Believe me, I could go on, but my aim isn’t to generate alarm so much as awareness.

Compared to our ancestors our bodies now contain more heavy metals like mercury and lead. If we take mercury poisoning as just one example, we know it causes extreme agitation. Concerns about the use of mercury in dental fillings and as a preservative in many vaccines continue to be raised but dismissed by the scientific community as unfounded. However background mercury levels continue to rise and quite considerable amounts have appeared in our oceans and now contaminate fish stocks. There is sufficient concern for the FDA who now advises pregnant women against consuming more than one small can of fish a week.

We now know that many insecticides have the ability to block receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA. This has particular implications for anxiety as GABA naturally inhibits arousal. Until fairly recently organophosphates were used for killing sheep parasites. Some scientists have suggested that the high suicide rate amongst farmers might be connected, but as others have pointed out, their often isolated lifestyle could also be a significant factor. Organophosphates are still used in treatments for lice and fleas and in some treatments for gardens and house plants. If you must use them, always wear protective clothing and try not to breathe in the fumes.

These days we live in a kind of chemical soup in which we breathe, eat, drink and absorb chemicals from the things around us. Some of these will be harmless but we also know the effects some of these chemicals can have on the nervous system. What we don’t really know is what constitutes normal or abnormal levels in our bodies. After all, when was the last time you were invited to have your pesticide levels checked?

By now you’ve probably already made your mind up about whether this post is unduly alarmist. It hasn’t been my intention. I don’t walk around with a face mask on and neither do eat organic foods or live on the top of a hill to escape the fumes. I see myself as someone who is developing an interest and an awareness of how lifestyle and environmental issues may play a part in our overall wellbeing and especially in the development of anxiety and depression. I think we can all make choices and changes that suit us when it comes to such issues. Perhaps you have a comment you'd like to share?


‘Crop spraying and the health of residents and bystanders’, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Special Report (2005)

Davis, D.R., et al., Chronic exposure to organophosphates: background and clinical picture. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol 6 (2000) 187-92.

So, What Has Psychiatry Ever Done for Us?

The standard approach to treating mental health issues hasn’t changed much for a very long time. It involves treatment, of sorts, being offered once symptoms appear but you only have to look at the average online forum to see how poorly the system recognizes and deals with the array of distress that people experience. The current approach still reflects a preference to emphasize physical wellbeing, perhaps because the mental health needs of patients remain a hazy, costly and poorly understood state of affairs.

Yet, we still look to 'experts' in mental health to identify problems and then show us what to do about them. Perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper and ask more searching questions about the nature of psychiatry, what it has to offer and how well it is providing the answers and leadership we need?

Self-help literature isn’t the first place you might expect to find a coherent challenge to what is currently on offer. However, Professor Jane Plant & Janet Stephenson manage to deliver something of a broadside to the system we’re all expected to use and look up to. They challenge psychiatry’s ageing interpretive framework which still seems to stand outside of much of what is known of the biological bases of memory and emotion.

Psychiatry remains a Cinderella service and this has all sorts of ramifications for the type of person it tends to attract and the nature and sophistication of research undertaken. Have we not reached a point where technicians should be screening for mental illness in much the same way we screen for other health problems? Shouldn’t specialists be available to routinely interpret functional brain scans? We have the technology yet it is barely used outside of a few research centers.

If we could turn things around where should we start? Maybe we could do worse than follow Plant & Stephenson’s call for all specialists involved in the treatment of mental illness to pass advanced examinations in neurology, physiology and biochemistry of the brain and nervous system. This new neurophysician, would replace psychiatrists as the person most capable of fully comprehending and treating the complexity of mental illness. If we want to get serious about mental health we surely need to take a fresh look at the service that currently purports to serve our psychological wellbeing and demand more and better.


Plant, J & Stephenson, J (2008) Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression: groundbreaking ways to help you feel better. Piatkus books. London.