Mental health is important, not just during May (Mental Health Awareness Month) but all year long. From 2019-2020, over 50 million Americans experienced mental health problems (1). 


We all know some things we can do to improve our mental health – like go to therapy, relax, engage in self-care, and connect with others. But what about the air we breathe?


Air Pollution is a Major Risk

Environmental health is an essential factor for overall well-being. The links between air quality and physical health issues like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are well-understood. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution causes roughly three million premature deaths yearly (2). But air pollution also impacts mental health. 


Recent findings show a link between particulate matter and mental illness. Air pollution is associated with increased stress levels, psychological distress, and heightened risk of conditions like dementia, Alzheimers, and depression. It is also linked with an increased risk of death in people with certain mental health conditions. 


New research points specifically to a link between poor air quality and decreased mental health in children and the elderly. 


And with an estimated 9 of 10 people worldwide breathing polluted air, this is concerning.

Brain Inflammation is to Blame

Exposure to pollutants like Nitrogen Dioxide is known to cause inflammation in the brain, which increases the chance of developing a psychiatric disorder. 


Nitrogen Dioxide is the primary pollutant emitted by vehicles, so in any developed area, you are being exposed to these pollutants and running the risk of developing mental health issues. 


A study in the UK also found even a small rise in Nitrogen Dioxide exposure can lead to a 32% increase in need for community-based treatment, and an 18% increase in need to be hospitalized due to mental illness (3). 


High Risk Groups

People aged 16-24 are one of the most high risk groups for mental health problems. Plus, 75% of mental health problems emerge before the age of 24, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for this age group.


A study from Sweden found that children were more likely to use psychiatric medication when exposed to high levels of PM 2.5 and Nitrogen Dioxide (4). 


“If you add on the impact of Covid, especially the issues of isolation that we’ve all experienced, it has really magnified the problem,” Michael Madonia, a university staff therapist said on the ‘Austin on the Air’ podcast. “We’re not built to be alone, and especially young people have suffered as a result of isolation.”


Isolation is now considered a public health risk for all age groups, because of both mental and physical health effects. And if the air in your personal environment is not clean, you are subjected to further risks. 


And because of Covid-19, many people have turned to harsh cleaners to mitigate viral transmission. But these come with their own set of problems, as they emit harmful chemicals that can negatively impact mental and physical health. 


Athletes Suffer Too

Mental health in the athletic world has been a hot topic in recent years. According to Athletes for Hope, 35% of elite or professional athletes have struggled with depression, anxiety, and even disordered eating. 


“A lot of times people don’t see us as regular people,” Levi Wallace, a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said in an ‘Austin on the Air’ podcast episode. “They think it’s all just glamor and fame and making money. At the same time, there’s so much pressure to continue to play at a high level and compete each and every day with no real job security, knowing that you can be cut at any time or you can be released or you can be traded. You can’t have any bad days, especially during gametime.”


Because of this, Austin Air has units in many athletic facilities to benefit both mental and physical health for athletes. 


What Can You Do?

The height of the pandemic was stressful for everyone. Air purification is an important part of mitigating the spread of Covid-19, and any step to stop viral transmission will inevitably help mental health too. 


The Austin Air HealthMate Plus is designed to remove a variety of pollutants, including Nitrogen Dioxide and pollutants from smoke, viruses (like Covid-19), bacteria, allergens, and VOCs. 


When looking at mental health, it is important to take a biopsychosocial approach. 


“We’re looking at the biology of our lives,” Madonia said. “That certainly has an impact on our mental health. A fish is as healthy as the water it swims in – we’re as healthy as the air we breathe. Anything that’s going to reduce our anxiety quotient, including the quality of our air, is absolutely a right thing.”