For Natalie Lui, the mental health of humans is inseparable from the environmental health of our planet. Natalie is program director at Body Banter, a quickly growing nonprofit organization that brings together youth voices from around the world to discuss body image in empowering, healing, and safe spaces. Through her work, she has developed a deep understanding of how we must take care of our natural spaces in order to take care of our mental health. Here, she shares both the science behind that truth as well as anecdotal evidence that illustrates why this issue means so much to her.
- What is your role at Body Banter, and how would you define the organization’s mission?
I am the program director at Body Banter, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization that empowers people to find their voices in conversations about body image and mental health. We strongly believe in the power of openly sharing thoughts, feelings, and experiences as a way to achieve self-growth. We strive to build confidence and resilience in individuals through our workshops, advocacy mentorship, and discussion groups. As the program director, my main responsibilities are to oversee our three programs, deliver workshops, and facilitate collaborations with partner organizations. However, because we are a small startup nonprofit, we all have to wear several hats daily!
- Where did your interest in the intersection of mental health and sustainability begin?
Since high school, I have been interested in mental health and sustainability topics, but I saw them as two separate, unrelated issues for a long time. Thus, when I considered which area to pursue a career in, I thought pursuing one meant I couldn’t follow the other. It wasn’t until I became active in the professional social impact space in Hong Kong that I realized that many social issues and the initiatives to tackle them are often highly interdependent and complementary. Intersectionality exists in all social problems, including mental health and sustainability, so solutions must address numerous social domains. Learning about the issues and existing solutions fostered my curiosity about mental health and sustainability intersections on both individual and societal levels.
- How has your experience of living in a city affected your mental health?
My experience of growing up and living in Hong Kong, a city that is not only ever-bustling but highly competitive and perfectionist, has most definitely affected my mental health. Constant comparison to societal standards has taken a toll on my self-esteem and self-confidence and significantly contributed to my stress and anxiety levels. But, I also think that my experiences of low self-esteem have helped me develop a strong ability to look inward for security and comfort and maintain a protective barrier around myself that tunes out excessive outside influences. My ability to care for my mental health ebbs and flows, but being consistent with self-care practices helps me the most.
- What actions do you take to stay connected to nature?
Because I live in a city that doesn’t allow for daily immersion in what people commonly perceive as nature, such as vast stretches of greenery, I have had to find alternative ways to stay connected to nature every day. Going on 45-minute walks with my dog every day around the hill I live on helps connect me to nature because I get to hear the sounds of birds and smell the plants that grow around me. Walking also connects me to nature because it feels very soothing and effortless for my body and reminds me that my body is meant to move! On weekends, I try to go on hikes with my family and my dog to get a more significant dose of nature.
- You’ve researched how the 17 Sustainable Development Goals promoted by the United Nations relates to mental health. Which of these goals is closest to your heart, and why?
Goal 17, Partnerships for the Goals, is the one closest to my heart. I strongly believe that achieving sustainable development will only be possible if universal cooperation and collaboration exist across the public and private sectors and disciplines. As mentioned earlier, social issues are inevitably intersectional, and I believe that comprehensive solutions need to involve contribution and feedback from various stakeholders.
- What are a few mental health stigmas you have encountered, and how can we combat them?
One of the main mental health stigmas is the belief that struggling with mental health indicates weakness. This belief leads people to show contempt for others who struggle with mental health and prevents those who are struggling from seeking support in fear of being judged by others. The most effective way to combat this stigma is through public education of mental health and to spread the message that mental health is not black or white. Mental health falls along a continuum, and every person moves along the continuum throughout their lifetime.
Additionally, although mental health stigma applies to everybody, it is powerful for men. Societal notions of masculinity dictate that men should not show vulnerability by feeling or expressing emotions. However, as demonstrated by numerous men’s mental health campaigns that involve various men sharing their personal mental health stories, seeing other men openly talk about their mental and emotional experiences can really help debunk the idea that men are not as affected by their emotions and that they should not share their feelings with other people.
- Why should areas with plentiful supplies of clean drinking water care about conserving this resource?
Although clean drinking water appears plentiful in certain areas, it is still a limited natural resource. Only 2.5% of the water on Earth is freshwater, and only 1% of this freshwater is accessible. However, all living organisms on Earth depend on water for their survival. Humans need water to drink, cook, wash, grow fruits and vegetables, and raise livestock. With a growing population and global warming, our freshwater supplies will be reduced in the future. Droughts and desertification worldwide have increased over the last few decades and will continue to grow. Being mindful of our water consumption can go a long way in slowing down Earth’s reduction of clean drinking water.
- How does access to freshwater relate to mental health?
Limited access to clean drinking water can lead to chronic dehydration, which has many physical and mental health effects. Regarding mental health, dehydration can lead to mental fatigue, irritability, lack of concentration, and slowed cognitive function. Furthermore, research studies have found that dehydration is linked to depression because it reduces mental energy and the production of serotonin and amino acids while increasing the body’s stress response. They have also found a link between dehydration and anxiety because dehydration increases the risk of panic attacks due to physical triggers, such as an increased heart rate, headaches, muscle fatigue and weakness, and lightheadedness.
- How does living in a developing country impact one’s access to mental health treatment, and what can we do about this?
Over 80% of people with mental illnesses live in low to middle-income countries. Mental health illnesses account for 9% of all diseases in these countries, while substance abuse accounts for 17%. Despite these alarming rates, roughly 80% of people with severe mental health disorders receive no treatment, signifying a severe shortage of mental health resources and treatment in these countries. There are several potential ways to improve access to mental health treatment. For example, we could provide mental health training to local healthcare workers to offer mental health support in culturally sensitive ways. Additionally, some NGOs (such as SalusWorld and NGOabroad) offer opportunities for mental health professionals to provide mental health treatment and education to people in developing countries.
- What is eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety is when you feel highly overwhelmed or distressed when you learn about the current climate situation or news related to climate change, such as extreme weather events and natural disasters. This anxiety is often linked to feelings of hopelessness when people perceive there is nothing they can do about the situation or get feelings of guilt and shame when they reflect on their contribution to climate change. I find that educating myself on current climate solutions and actively taking steps in my everyday life to reduce my own carbon footprint can help ease my eco-anxiety.
- Living an entirely eco-friendly life is very difficult; for example, it is tough for many people to go altogether plastic-free or vegan because of culture and resources. How can we avoid guilt in such situations?
This is a great question. I have experienced a lot of guilt in these situations, and I know that many others have felt the same way. None of us can live an entirely eco-friendly life, given the way that our society is structured. However, it is essential to remind ourselves that there are many different ways to take climate action, and everyone’s capacity to do so may vary. We need to remember not to be too hard on ourselves and know that if we are doing what we can, given our individual circumstances, then we are doing enough.
- How might climate change disasters impact mental health?
Climate-driven natural disasters can have a range of adverse outcomes on those living in the affected areas, including injury or death of loved ones, destruction of property, and forced displacement from homes. Understandably, such sudden and extreme losses paired with the traumatic experience of the disaster itself increase the rate of short-term and long-term mental health problems. Numerous studies have found that the most common mental health consequences among survivors of climate change disasters are depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and suicide . Furthermore, greater severity of exposure to the disaster and greater severity of losses increase the risk of these mental health consequences.
- How do air pollutants affect mental health?
Research on this topic is currently limited, but existing data suggest that there is a link between air pollutants and mental health. Recent studies have found that increases in exposure to air pollution correlate with significant increases in rates of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and suicide . Additionally, patients suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression who had higher exposure to air pollution were more likely to require hospitalization or community-based treatments than patients who had lower exposure . Moreover, long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution is linked to lowered cognitive abilities . Although more research is needed to draw conclusions, the existing literature suggests that air pollution has harmful effects on mental health and physical.
- What is your favorite way to connect to nature, and how does the experience make you feel?
My favorite way to connect to nature is to take long walks through a forest or by the coast. I like hearing the sounds of animals in the woods or the soft swishing of waves hitting the shore, and I like smelling the fresh scent of trees or the saltiness of seawater. I prefer to walk alone quietly or with someone comfortable with silence. These walks slow and quiet my mind and remind me that my worries aren’t that significant in the grand scheme of things!
- What is the importance of having a team working to make mental health and sustainability resources available to all?
There is a lot of work in advocacy, and we need as many hands and brainpower as possible to do it! But more importantly, having a team of passionate, like-minded individuals is incredibly helpful when it comes to advocacy work because progress can seem extremely slow at times, and having encouraging people to boost morale makes all the difference. Also, having peers with skill sets and experience is very useful in developing and distributing resources. As a team, we would be able to use a variety of approaches and mediums to build resources and then allocate these resources to a more significant number of communities.
- Why are conversation communities integral to the discussion of complex and sensitive topics?
At Body Banter, we call our discussion groups “Conversation Communities” to emphasize the strong connections that form within a community when its members have open discussions. Having a supportive community is crucial to the discussion of vulnerable experiences because when we struggle with certain aspects of our lives, it’s easy to feel alone. It’s easy to feel like everyone else is doing and feeling better than us. But when we openly share our experiences with other people and listen to them share their stories, we realize that other people struggle too, and often with similar things. We also learn that challenges rooted in the same issues can also manifest differently for each individual and that it’s important for us to show empathy, generosity, and kindness to any person who is struggling, including ourselves.
- What is the importance of prioritizing international and cross-cultural connections in such conversations?
When we have these conversations, it’s valuable to hear from a diverse group of people to learn from a variety of perspectives. People with different cultural backgrounds and beliefs are likely to have experiences and opinions that diverge from ours. I have found that discussing my feelings about certain situations with other people who grew up in different cultural contexts has allowed me to realize that my feelings stem from my own culture’s set of beliefs and traditions. International and cross-cultural connections can encourage our consideration of the various systems at play and the multitude of factors that come together to produce specific outcomes.
- What is your vision for your future advocacy work?
I envision my future advocacy work to combine the realms of mental health and sustainability. I would like to bring greater public attention to the interconnectedness and interdependence of the two issues, specifically the idea that sustainability goals require good mental health to achieve. Individuals need sustainable environments and communities to thrive mentally and emotionally.