Hi everyone! I hope you are having a nice week thus far. Today I want to talk about climate change and mental health. If you’re new around here, on my blog I share a variety of content: evidenced-based nutrition, environmental health, and climate change content, as well as some vegan recipes and tidbit of my life sprinkled in between.
I tend to alternate my science posts based on whatever I feel is interesting or relevant or requested. I’m currently partaking in a climate leadership training to become a climate educator/community leader so right now I’m super revved up about talking about climate change.
I’m going to probably do a mini-series about climate change and some of its lesser-talked about consequences, including things like mental health (which we will cover in today’s posts), displacement, and more.
As always, feel free to leave questions or comments on this post, or reach out to me on one of my social media channels.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health, please see the following resources:
- National Institute of Health’s Mental Illness help page
- National Alliance on Mental Illness help page
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
- Crisis Text Line: Text “HELLO” to 741741
- SAMHA’s National Helpline and help-page (for substance abuse and mental disorders)
- National Eating Disorders Association
What is climate change?
Climate change is the long-term changes to average weather patterns that have come to define the earth’s local, regional and global climates.
If you’d like to learn more about climate change, I have a variety of posts about it. Here are a few introductory posts if you’d like to get started:
- What is the difference between climate and weather?
- How does CO2 contribute to climate change?
- How does climate change impact human health?
What is mental health?
Mental health refers to not just the absence of mental illness, mental problems and mental disorders, but also to the inclusion of mental wellness, emotional resilience, and psychosocial well-being.
Being mentally well includes experiencing positive emotions, a sense of meaning or purpose, and having strong social connections.
How could climate change be connected to mental health?
Climate change is connected to a variety of stressors, which can subsequently take a toll on mental health.
Climate change can impact mental health both directly and indirectly. Direct impacts may be related to things like heat stress, and indirect impacts are more related to things like the threat of climate change to health and well-being, displacement and forced migration, economic losses, violence, and habitat loss, etc.
Broadly speaking, researchers have categorized the impacts of climate change on mental health into three categories.
The first category include acute (short-term) extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods and wildfires.
The second group includes longer term climate-related changes that may last months to years, including like drought and heat stress, and the third group includes the effects of existential threats of long-lasting changes that will last a century or longer, including things like rising sea levels, the potential of uninhabitable environments, and higher temperatures.
Any short, medium, or long term event has the potential to profoundly impact the mental health of an individual. After all, these events have the ability to displace people from their homes, their occupations, and sense of identity and purpose, and present as a looming threat over an individual’s daily routine and well-being.
We will discuss a few examples of types of climate stressors and their documented impacts on mental health.
Extreme weather events
The impacts of extreme weather events on mental health are well documented. For example, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and heat waves are associated wtih increased rates of anxiety and mood disorders, acute stress reactions, PTSD, difficulties sleeping, suicide and suicidal idealiation, and feelings of grief.
These extreme weather events may also cause disruption to daily life and threaten people’s economic well-beings. For example, if a farmer’s crops become flooded, they may not be able to make economic ends meet, which can cause additional stressors.
As extreme weather events become more frequent with climate change, increased frequency of these events, and the looming threat of future events may linger, further exacerbating mental health concerns.
And it seems that a large proportion of the population is impacted: a meta-analysis that examined the impacts of diseases and mental health found that 7-40% of individuals experiencing extreme events also experienced a subsequent form of psychopathology, including things like anxiety, phobias, depression, and drug impairment.
More recent reviews have found traumatic stress, terror, anger, and shock to all be result of experiencing climate-induced disasters.
Heat waves can be short in duration, and considered extreme weather events, but they can also be longer-term. Besides being deadly, heat waves can take a toll on mental health, and research has shown that the longer the heatwave goes on, the more profound toll it may take on mental health.
Those with pre-existing mental health issues may find that heat and heat stress exacerbate their conditions. Research has shown that heat waves contribute to higher rates of death and hospitalizations in those with schizophrenia, dementia, and substance use disorder (addiction, which is considered a mental health problem).
Drought can be devastating for communities that experience it in a variety of ways, including the mental well-being of citizens.
In addition to being a source of anxiety if one resides in a drought-prone area, drought can cause economic hardship and forced migration, both of which can cause significant distress and mental health issues. It can also disrupt food supply chains, potentially causing additional anguish.
As droughts are expected to increase in frequency and intensity (and geographical range) with climate change, those that experience these impacts already may face even harsher drought situations in the future. Additionally, those who are not used to droughts but live in areas where droughts may begin to occur may be faced with challenges adjusting to these realities.
Long-lasting impacts of climate change: an existential threat
There are many shorter-term climate-related events that can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions. But what about longer-term impacts of climate change?
Climate change is an existential threat, and processing the heaviness of the situation can be disturbing to many. It may cause individuals to feel hopeless, helpless, anxious, and upset.
Indeed, the research has shown that psychological distress and anxiety about the future may be a result of grappling with the realities of climate change. The phrase “ecoanxiety” refers to the phenomenon of worrying about what climate change means for the future of one’s environment.
Although not considered a diagnosis in the DSM-V at present, the American Psychological Association did recognize the phenomenon in 2017. Researchers have identified common emotions experienced by those with eco-anxiety include helplessness, loss, and frustration at their inability to make a difference in stopping climate change.
Exacerbating existing mental health conditions:
As I’ve alluded to throughout the post, climate change and events caused by climate change can exacerbate existing mental health conditions. For example, individuals with chronic mental health impacts may experience higher rates of agression, helplessness, intense feelings of loss or hopelessness, and higher rates of mental health energies.
As with most public health issues, some groups of people are at greater risk than others. Climate change in general tends to impact individuals in low and middle-income countries, and lower-income individuals within wealthier nations. The climate-related mental health impacts of climate change are no exception.
Individuals living in poverty are at greater risk of increased exposure to extreme weather events, and are less likely to have access to mental health services, thus making them a particularly vulnerable group.
Additionally, indigenous populations and people of color are also more likely to experience serious impacts of climate change, and also less likely to have access to appropriate services, and are therefore also more likely to experience mental health distress.
Kids, like adults, experience mental health impacts of climate change. And some research suggests that children may be more likely to feel mental health impacts of climate change compared to adults. After all, it is their future that is at stake, and often times, they may feel helpless.
A 2018 review found direct and indirect effects of climate change and risks of mental health issues in children. Specifically, climate change stressors were linked to higher rates of PTSD, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, phobias, attachment disorders and substance abuse in child participants.
These mental illnesses can lead to problems with emotional regulation, learning, behavior, language development, and cognition, with potentially long-lasting impact.
Take home: Climate change and mental health
Climate change can have acute and chronic impacts on mental health. The impacts of climate change on individuals is well-documented, and ailments like anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and feelings of grief are common.
Climate change can also exacerbate underlying mental-health conditions. Already vulnerable populations are even more vulnerable to mental health impacts of climate change. We must work to improve mental health services including those that tailor to climate-related stressors moving forward.
We barely scratched the surface on this topic in this blog post. I encourage you to read more by clicking on some of the hyperlinks, which should direct you to peer-reviewed literature and other resources on this topic.
Thanks again for reading and be well!
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