For Americans uprooted by climate change, mental health is the next crisis

For Americans uprooted by climate change, mental health is the next crisis
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The Biden administration’s recent executive order calling for a comprehensive report on climate-related migration and for reorganizing the U.S. migration system comes at a critically important time. 

Across the United States, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, winter storms and rising tides are leading to more migrations. In Oregon, as of late last December, more than 1,000 people are still displaced due to the 2020 wildfires. And in Louisiana, the first so-called ‘climate change refugees’ are being resettled. 

The challenges climate migrant families face are not limited to basic needs such as housing and employment. Rather, as we argue in our article on crisis related migration and family mental health, being displaced by climate change may also create substantial trauma negatively impacting mental health. It is imperative that policymakers’ take into account these mental health needs when devising climate change related policies. 

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Mental health challenges can arise as soon as disaster strikes and before migration occurs. A large body of documents show how exposures to disasters can be traumatic and detrimental to mental health. For instance, following Hurricanes Katrina, Maria and Michael, people who were displaced by the storm exhibited higher rates of posttraumatic stress compared to people who did not relocate.  

The early stages of moving can also result in trauma. Families who move are often separated from the communities and environments on which they rely to ‘bounce back’ from disasters and other traumatic events. They are sometimes even separated from each other. For example, the temporary trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided after Hurricane Katrina were not large enough to accommodate family gatherings for the often extensive and tight knit family structures of New Orleans Black residents.  Lack of opportunities to get together as large family units served to undermine family life for many.

The recovery process itself can also be traumatic. Accessing resources that government agencies might provide can often require navigating their highly bureaucratic, complex and cumbersome recovery systems. Some researchers go so far as to liken this to “bureaucratic violence.” 

These stressors can accumulate and intersect with other stressors — such as racial and/or ethnic discrimination or poverty and result in physical health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. These stressors can also impact families, resulting in child behavioral problems, parental work stress and family conflict. Trauma and stress can also stretch across communities and from one generation to another through community disadvantage.

Mitigating these traumas requires tailored solutions. Specific efforts should be made to support families, as families represent significant sources of support and resilience for children. Emergency management organizations that provide post-disaster assistance could provide adequate temporary housing that supports healthy family relationships. Churches, nongovernmental agencies and other civil society organizations could also play a role in creating conditions that alleviate stress and support mental health. Such approaches may work best if they are comprehensive and address the variety of stressors that can create trauma — from employment services and health coverage to facilitating integration into new communities. 

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Although climate change displacement may create substantial trauma, the federal government does not currently have a set of policies designed to support the mental health needs of climate change migrants. And although such policies appear necessary, they may currently be exceedingly difficult to craft. This is because the general linkages between climate migration and mental health are clear, but exact forms that these linkages can take and the specific policies necessary to support them are not currently well understood.  

Therefore, as a first step in creating such policies, lawmakers executing the Biden administration’s new executive order could focus on understanding what these mental health needs are. Given the tailored solutions that might be necessary and the potentially significant role of civil society organizations in alleviating mental health impacts, such work could also be driven by climate migrants themselves and the community groups upon which they rely.  

Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is a social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation whose research focuses on disaster risk management, including issues related to disaster risk reduction, response and recovery. Saskia Vos is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Public Health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Her research focuses on crisis migration, racial/ethnic discrimination, mental health and family processes. Seth J. Schwartz is Professor of Kinesiology, Health Education, and Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on crisis migration, cultural stress, family functioning, well-being and substance use among youth and their parents.