Water and mental health

Amber Wutich, Alexandra Brewis, Alexander Tsai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

98 Scopus citations


There is a well-established connection among water quality, sanitation, and physical health. The potentially important relationship between water and mental health is considerably less studied. Reviewing evidence from ethnography, geography, folklore, indigenous studies, rural medicine, drought research, and large-n statistical studies, we argue there is now good theoretical rationale and growing evidence of water insecurity as a possible driver of mental ill-health. Furthermore, some nascent evidence suggests that emotionally meaningful interactions with water might improve mental health outcomes. Leveraging these literatures, we address the many ways in which mental health outcomes are conceptualized and operationalized in water research, including as emotional distress, perceived stress, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, somatic symptoms, and quality of life. We outline arguments supporting seven possible (and likely interlocking) mechanisms that could explain such a relationship: (a) material deprivation and related uncertainty, (b) shame of social failure, (c) worry about health threats, (d) loss of connections to people and places, (e) frustration around opportunity losses and restricted autonomy, (f) interpersonal conflict and intimate partner violence, and (g) institutional injustice or unfairness. However, we explain that as most existing studies are ethnographic, qualitative, or cross-sectional, a causal relationship between water and mental ill-health is yet to be confirmed empirically. More research on this topic is needed, particularly given that poorly understood connections may create barriers to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 3 (health) and 6 (water). We further suggest that tracking mental health indicators may provide unique and as-yet underappreciated insights into the efficacy of water projects and other development interventions. This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Water, Health, and Sanitation Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1461
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • drought
  • emotional distress
  • mental health
  • psychosocial
  • water insecurity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ocean Engineering
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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