Is the climate crisis affecting our mental health?

Is the climate crisis affecting our mental health?
© iStock

A recent article in The Guardian, painfully illustrated how residents of Greenland, the world’s largest non-continental island located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, are experiencing mental health problems as they intimately experience climate change. 

The ongoing increase in the Earth's average surface temperature is resulting in the disappearing beauty of Greenland, and the dissolution of their way of life. Inhabitants’ angst over this tremendous loss has been labeled ecological grief. 

To some, this may sound like something happening to strangers in a foreign land. What they do not yet realize is that the emotional challenge of climate change is all of ours.

ADVERTISEMENT

There is scientific consensus that global warming is occurring. The effects of Earth’s changing climate are observable in many aspects of our physical environments, such as the rise of sea levels, and alterations in rainfall patterns. 

But, the effects of more frequent and severe adverse weather events can also be found in our individual mental health. And, so when we talk about a public health response to climate change, we need to inform, educate and empower people about mental health effects as well. 

In a review of the emerging research, climate change was found to affect people’s mental health, both directly and indirectly. First, extreme weather events can have immediate and long-term impacts on mental health concerns and outcomes. 

They can result in greater man-made disasters, thus exposing people directly to events that are considered traumatic. Exposure to events such as floods, hurricanes, forest fires and tornados can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a host of other emotional difficulties, such as complicated grief, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse and even possible increased risk of suicide.

But, these events also bring loss, disruption and displacement. And have thus reverberating, indirect effects, like unstable housing, lack of access to support services and unemployment. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Heat, drought, migrations and climate-related conflicts, also have social and community effects. For example, individuals from the steep jungle hills of Bangladesh reported that climate change was negatively impacting their lives, increasing family stress and amplifying previous traumas. But, it isn’t just people near fragile ecosystems that feel those consequences. In a survey of residents from a Southeastern U.S. city, social cohesion was negatively associated with health impacts of summer heat and winter extremes. That is, people reported it was harder to be connected and work together in extreme heat or cold.

The effects of climate change — extreme heat, flooding and storms and air pollution — pack the biggest wallop for already disadvantaged communities and populations. 

Marginalized or vulnerable folks like children, older adults and those with physical and mental health disabilities, are particularly badly affected.

Climate change can also harm our physical health. It is estimated that climate change will exacerbate the incidence of some noncommunicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, some cancers, respiratory health and malnutrition. 

With increased physical health burdens, people often get depressed and anxious. In addition, there is an increased use of emergency departments for mental and psychosocial problems, when the temperature and humidity are higher.

Indirect effects of climate change on mental health can also be felt through the damage to the physical environment. Extreme weather poses a threat to people’s safety, food, shelter and livelihood. 

For instance, farmers in the Western Australian Wheatbelt, a crescent-shaped area known for its agriculture, reported that climate change was impacting their self-identity. Not just how they see themselves, but their whole way of being. And, when those kind of all-encompassing foundational shifts happen, people are forced out, through displacement or migration.

Any of us can look around and see, hear and experience climate change. And when we do, many of us have related concerns, sleeplessness, uncertainties and even anxieties about the future. For some, it’s more than concern for the very large carbon footprint, it’s an existential fear. 

The World Health Organization believes that climate change is a defining issue for 21st century health systems. The potential solutions are complex. Scientists, clinicians, public health professionals, governments and organizations will have to work together to tackle this problem before it’s too late. But, as a psychologist, what I know, is that we need to anticipate and be ready to manage and relieve the mental health burdens climate change will impose.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.