UBC researchers are influencing global mental health priorities in a changing climate

A firefighter drags a hose through the brush.

“Globally, there are limited consistent resources and infrastructure to support mental health needs in the event of an emergency,” said Dr. Jill Murphy, Strategic Initiatives Director, APEC Digital Hub for Mental Health, and a postdoctoral fellow in UBC's Department of Psychiatry. “Historically, the approach post-disaster is to provide an acute response to mental health needs. With a changing global climate, it is going to be increasingly urgent to look at the long-term mental health implications of natural disasters and other climate-related emergencies.”

APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) includes 21 member economies bordering the Pacific Ocean. The 21 member nations represent 40 percent of the world’s population, and 60 of global gross domestic product, making APEC a leader in setting priorities that affect the rest of the world.

Dr. Murphy formally joined the APEC Digital Hub for Mental Health executive in January, working with Dr. Raymond Lam (Executive Director of the Digital Hub) and Dr. Erin Michalak (Program Director of the Digital Hub) to strengthen mental health systems in the Pacific Rim and influence global decision makers. Dr. Murphy, whose research focus is on global mental health and implementation science, sees a critical need to strengthen health systems around mental health priorities, including those related to disaster response and climate change.

Disaster resilience and trauma is one of seven priorities listed in the strategic plan for the APEC Digital Hub for Mental Health, which was established five years ago and is up for renewal by APEC in 2020.

“Post-disaster mental health response has tended to focus on acute care and immediate concerns,” said Dr. Murphy. “Long-term concerns, such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression require ongoing resources for care. Complex factors including the implications on communities of housing loss, relocation, or the compounding effect of disasters on existing mental health issues, and the effects of prolonged stress on children, are going to require a lot more research. In the APEC region, we’re seeing a lot of leadership from countries like Japan, Chile, Taiwan, and the Philippines on these issues.”

While the scope is global, the APEC Digital Hub for Mental Health is hosted in Canada, with much of its leadership based at the University of British Columbia. The work of the Digital Hub is critical in influencing policymakers and healthcare practitioners alike, and the team has been actively involved in informing the roadmap for the next five years.

“We have a platform in which we can affect change by appealing directly to APEC ministers and officials, and the work we are doing informs pilot programs and best practices in APEC member states,” said Dr. Murphy. “At a meeting of APEC Senior Officials in Chile in August, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the work of the Digital Hub to date and I think going forward addressing the mental health effects of climate change must be among the top priorities for the region.”

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