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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: The Greatest Challenge – Saving the Planet and Our People

20 April 2018

As we celebrate Earth Day 2018, it is critical to recognize that we all have a role to play in saving our planet – which must include attending to those who are suffering emotionally.

As we approach Earth Day on April 22 2018 a global movement dedicated to environmentalism, Dr Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D, Founder and President of Give an Hour, reflects on the importance of the intersection between environmental justice and emotional and mental well being. 


In December of last year in Rome, I had the pleasure of meeting Kathleen Rogers – President of the Earth Day Network. Kathleen is a fierce advocate for environmental action and social justice. Under her leadership, Earth Day has grown into an international movement with an annual participation of over one billion people in 192 countries.

On that crisp December afternoon, Kathleen and I toured the Gardens of the Vatican – getting to know each other’s work, appreciating the incredible beauty of the Gardens and feeling the sacredness of the ancient space we were visiting. It was a humbling experience.

While we walked, Kathleen and I discussed the potential intersection of our work – her focus is on protecting the Earth’s natural resources, while mine is on the emotional well-being of those who inhabit our planet.

We discussed the power of nature to heal emotional pain – and the reality that those who are emotionally healthy are more likely to appreciate the need to maintain and protect our earth’s natural resources. It was exciting to explore how our work together could lead to progress across both areas of focus.

We were invited to Rome as part of a gathering of entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, as well as corporate and non profit leaders. It was a gathering inspired by the wisdom and compassion of Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home. Organized by the founders of the Laudauto Si’ Challenge, we came together to share ideas to further the Pope’s vision and to support a group of young entrepreneurs who were participating in the Challenge – to build profitable and sustainable businesses that reflect the Pope’s vision.

We came together because we share a belief that the global challenges we face can only be solved by collaborating across sectors, by sharing information and resources and by focusing on our common bonds and mutual goals.

Many of those who attended this engaging three-day event were Catholic, but others, like me, were not. The Pope’s words are so compelling because he speaks not only to members of his own faith – but to all people who care about the condition of our planet and the circumstances that affect and oppress so many who live among us. Pope Francis is an admired and respected world leader whose simple message accurately defines the greatest challenge of our generation while clearly articulating the solution.

“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time, protecting nature.”

_ Pope Francis, 2015

While in Rome, we were also honored to hear a speech by Cardinal Peter Turkson – an inspiring and wise leader in his own right. Cardinal Turkson spoke passionately about the plight of the many refugees in our world today and reminded us that we must attend to the most marginalized in our society – if we are to truly care for our common home.

I left Rome feeling resolved and energized, with a clear understanding of how my work to change the culture of mental health is critically important to the goal of saving our planet. Diagnosable mental health conditions affect one in four people globally. Untreated conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia lead to intense emotional suffering, cost our nations billions of dollars annually in health care costs, lost productivity and disability – and destroy families.

Unaddressed addictions – which often results from or leads to mental health concerns – further add to the financial and social burdens countries face. Poor mental health also underlies many other societal challenges including domestic violence, child abuse and homelessness. Further, suicide is a major issue across the globe – killing more people in the United States than do car accidents. In many countries, suicide is one of the primary causes of death among our youth.

Mental health conditions affect all classes, races and occupations. Why? Because we all have mental health. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is compromised – just like our physical health.

And we all experience emotional pain and suffering, sometimes because of things that happen to us such as trauma and sometimes because of genetic factors that predispose us to conditions like depression.

Although we don’t have all of the answers or cures for mental health conditions, there are many treatments and approaches that lead to healing and recovery. People with mental health challenges can – and often do – lead healthy and productive lives. Unfortunately, our cultures discourage open and honest discussions about mental health and mental illness.

Those who suffer from mental health conditions often feel shame and guilt. And depending on where you live, proper care, support or treatment may be unavailable or impossible to afford. While there is a significant shortage of mental health professionals in western countries – there is an absolute crisis in underdeveloped countries where there may only be a handful of trained mental health professionals for an entire country.

How can we possibly have a healthy planet when so many who live on our earth are suffering with unaddressed mental illness and untreated trauma? How can we possibly have a healthy planet when many who suffer are shunned or imprisoned?

Fortunately, there is hope.

We are seeing a growing movement to change the way we think about, talk about and address mental health and emotional well-being. Efforts like the Movement for Global Mental Health, Canada’s Let’s Talk, Heads Together in the UK, Australia’s Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation – are all doing tremendous work.

And in the US, the organization that I founded 13 years ago, Give an Hour, leads the Campaign to Change Direction, a collective impact public health approach to change our culture. Many of us will be  gathering in London in October for our second Global Summit on Mental Health Culture Change to continue coordinating our efforts.

We are also seeing celebrities stepping forward to support this cause including Former First Lady Michelle Obama who joined us in 2015 to launch the Campaign to Change Direction as well as Dr. Jill Biden, Richard Gere, Brian Wilson and Chris Stapleton. Prince Harry is a champion for the Heads Together effort in the UK and recorded a compelling video for Change Direction. Talinda Bennington, who lost her husband to suicide, joined us to create 320 Changes Direction to reach families with the resources they need to support those they love. Chester Bennington was the lead singer for the band, Linkin Park. His fans and Talinda’s supporters have joined her commitment to help us change the culture so that those in need receive the help they deserve.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2018, it is critical to recognize that we all have a role to play in saving our planet – which must include attending to those who are suffering emotionally.

Some will focus on providing support and offering hope to those who struggle with mental health challenges. Others will support the brightest entrepreneurs to develop environmentally sound business models through efforts like the Laudato Si’ Challenge. And some of us will work to find the intersections.

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