A woman cries as she sits in the remains of a home that was completely destroyed by fire

Early Career Epidemiologist Studies Climate’s Effects on Mental Health

By Twig Mowatt

Vanessa Li

Vanessa Li

Growing up in a small town in northern California, Vanessa Li was acutely aware of the fact that her parents were about 20 years older than those of her peers. She remembers a bodega cashier once asking her if she was getting groceries with her grandfather, while exchanging pleasantries with her father.

These and other experiences made her worry that her time with her parents was limited. She began to think deeply about their health and well-being and started to seek out opportunities to better understand and impact the health of her family and community.

This passion led her to examine how the U.S. and other countries’ healthcare and public health systems support and fail the health and well-being of their populations.

Her search for a career that would open doors to this world led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in public policy (with minors in economics and global health) and a master’s degree in public health. From her coursework and a variety of internships and practicums, she began to carve out her niche.

She shadowed clinicians at the Mayo Clinic to better understand continuums of care, explored the relationship between loneliness and health at a design firm, studied hospital environments with architects and nurses, and analyzed opioid misuse patterns in New Hampshire as a summer intern with MITRE in 2019.

This journey led Li to where she is today—a social behavioral scientist at MITRE, leading research at the intersection of two of the most critical issues of the day—climate change and mental health.

We tend to only think about physical health impacts, not mental health implications.

Vanessa Li, epidemiologist

“We have these two co-occurring crises, with one really exacerbating the other,” she says. “When it comes to climate change, we tend to only think about the physical health impacts. Meanwhile there are severe yet under-addressed mental health implications. Social workers, psychologists, and behavioral health experts aren’t included in most climate solution efforts. I think we have an opportunity here to make a difference.”

Where Mental Health and Climate Change Meet

Li is doing her research through MITRE’s Early Career Research Program (ECRP), part of our independent research and development program. The ECRP offers people who are within five years of entering the full-time workforce the chance to explore a novel research idea and learn about MITRE’s sponsors’ complex problems. For 2022, Li has spent 50 percent of her time on her research, which she’ll brief out in December, and 50 percent on sponsor work.

“I was really intrigued by this research program,” she says. “That MITRE would offer something exclusively in support of the development of younger professionals is unique.”

She likens the project to a thesis. “I think this study will mature my applied science and research skills,” she says. “Since [the intersection of mental health and climate change] is something MITRE hasn’t specifically worked on, it also gives me the chance to introduce this capability to our portfolio, which is really exciting.”

The extreme weather events caused by climate change can be highly traumatic. From packing up and evacuating, to sequestering in a public refuge, to losing a home or even the life of a loved one, there is a wide range of suffering. For those who can’t rebuild their home and are forced to relocate and begin a new life, the emotional toil is long-lasting. For areas most at risk for extreme climate events, there is rarely time between natural disasters to physically or emotionally rebuild a community or acquire new skills and resources.

The inequity aspect of climate impact is of particular interest to Li. People of lower socioeconomic status are usually less able to evacuate before a weather event. They are also apt to live in areas most at risk for flooding and other climate-related damage. These populations may not have the resources to rebuild their homes after a disaster strikes or have access to medical care.

Exploring the Socio-structural Factors of Disease

“When people think of public health research and interventions, they tend to think of infectious disease control. While it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the biological, environmental, and societal factors that influence our health, my focus is more on the socio-structural factors of disease,” Li says. “Most of our health and health status is determined by factors outside the healthcare sector—things like your housing situation, your zip code, and the types of economic and mobility resources you grew up with.”

These socio-structural factors, often referred to as social determinants of health, are top of mind in Li’s research. She’s investigating local interventions related to emergency response for mass trauma that can be applied to climate situations. She hopes to determine how such interventions could be scaled up to support larger areas and targeted to the most-vulnerable populations.

Li believes every community’s voice is critical to this research. She’s interviewed leaders across tribal behavioral health, as well as specialists in military mental health and directors of emergency preparedness response.

“This research project has afforded me the platform to not only socialize the topic [of climate-related mental health], but to also develop my niche and leadership in MITRE’s work,” says Li. 

She was recently offered an opportunity to lead development of a strategy for a federal agency working on substance use disorder and mental health issues.

She also recently concluded a project supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on ways to improve the systems critical to providing services and care to the nation’s population experiencing homelessness. In her current work at MITRE, she continues to fuel her passion for health, while striving to have an impact and grow as a professional.

“During my MITRE internship, I saw very real results from my work, and I was given so much grace and opportunity to acquire new skills,” she says. “That’s still very much the case—I have the flexibility to choose my own adventure at MITRE, and I’m supported every step of the way.”

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