Some of the common phrases used by those who get a chance to escape the confines of the concrete jungle are, “The air just feels different!” “I feel a little bit healthier!” and “I feel so relaxed!”. One common factor that can be experienced and related to these emotions is the serenity of the green lush vegetation experienced out of the city. The green vegetation and fresh air have an inexplicable calming effect. It provides a great opportunity to reflect and meditate, while further offering emotional and psychological comfort. Forests and a healthy environment (ecological environment) have been known to have a positive effect and contributes greatly to our health. The ecological environment also provides us with our most basic needs of water, food and medicine.
Our concerted efforts as we work to reduce the impacts of climate change, for the benefit of our environment play a major role in ultimately improving our overall health. This year on the 21st of March, 2023, the world commemorated the International Day of Forests themed “Forests and Health” as espoused by the United Nations. This was in line with the universal recognition of the priceless ecological, economic, social and health benefits of forests to more than 1.60 billion people. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention defines mental health as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health further affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. However, mental health is increasingly being linked to climate change and the environment. There is increasing evidence that the environment affects one’s sense of social support, comfort, and level of stimulation. External factors such as crime, racism, and pollution have been shown to greatly and negatively influence people’s health and safety, which can have a profound impact on your mental well-being. The environment thus further influences stress levels, which can then have an impact on your physical and mental health.
Slowly, we are appreciating the importance of having a healthy work and personal environment to decompress from the fast life. Although many people take up different hobbies to help decompress and feel grounded in their lives, one important constant and effective decompressor has been green spaces. This has taken center-stage in campaigns in the move to create mental health friendly cities across the world. In line with this and cognizant of the growing risk posed by climate change, Ryculture Health and Social Innovation in partnership with the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), held an intimate activity at Arboretum in Nairobi on 25th March 2023. This event was to commemorate the International Day of Forest, with a focus on the Nexus between Climate Change and Mental Health – Promoting Mental Wellbeing through Health Environments. This was relevant due the rise in mental health disorders in the general public and especially among the youth. The activity brought together people from diverse backgrounds and across age groups. It incorporated a range of physical and mental exercises, focus group discussions and nature walks. The focus group discussions were the highlight of the event, where the attendees got to engage in various topics ranging from relationships, family, career and education.
Promoting mental wellbeing involves creating open and healthy environments (both physically and psychologically) free from judgment – safe spaces – where people can express themselves freely, seek help and decompress from stressors in their day-to-day activities. This event with average participation modelled this with positive feedback and uptake from the participants.
In the middle of the discussions on how relationships have evolved in the African Traditional setting and the laughter on various embarrassing family moments common in African homes, the general feelings were such as, “The air just feels different!” “I feel a little be healthier!” and “I feel so relaxed!”. We got to appreciate the value of gardens and parks in the city such as Jeevanjee Gardens and Uhuru Park in providing us spaces to connect, decompress and relish the moments in the hectic pursuit of our passions. It is important to create and champion for more of such spaces, sustainably utilize these green spaces not only to appreciate nature and have picnics, but also to improve our wellbeing. Our mental health is important, we have to invest in it.
It was further highlighted that the importance of green spaces and more so a healthy environment had a direct relationship to mental health. As the day was well spent and commemorated, it was further emergent that the youth stand to either bear the brunt of a future with an unhealthy ecosystem and environment, or will be the greatest beneficiaries.
The generation of youth are constantly coming into terms with the fact that as the ‘future’ of the global societies and even more in Sub Saharan Africa – where the youth comprise of over 70% of the population – they need to be more actively involved and engaged in all activities that have to do with conservation of the environment, for their own benefit and further more check the progressive adverse effects to and from climate change. As more youth are becoming more aware of such relationships as that of a healthy environment and mental wellbeing, it is a call to action to all of us in society to build the youths’ capacities, to provide them with knowledge and awareness surrounding these integral topics, and to create situations and enabling environments that allow for these generation to participate in conservation efforts. This needs to go even a step further to research and data that out to inform policy – all these activities involving and including the youth in activities that are purposeful and meaningful in engaging them.
United Nations. International Day of Forests 21 March. https://www.un.org/en/observances/forests-and-trees-day
 Lindberg, S. (2023). How Your Environment Affects Your Mental Health. [online] Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/how-your-environment-affects-your-mental-health-5093687
 United Nations (2022). Young people’s potential, the key to africa’s sustainable development | office of the high representative for the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states. [online] Un.org. Available at: https://www.un.org/ohrlls/news/young-people%E2%80%99s-potential-key-africa%E2%80%99s-sustainable-development