This summer has seen record-breaking heat and unexpected wildfires that have wreaked havoc on a number of North American communities. Other unusual and extreme weather events are occurring around the globe. Those who have lost their homes or their loved ones are no doubt feeling sad, stressed, even traumatized. Others, who have not been directly affected, are also feeling anxious.
Amidst all the other impacts of climate change, the impact on mental health must also be recognized. Climate change affects mental health in multiple ways, including some that are indirect, but research is demonstrating three main direct impacts.
First, to the extent that climate change is contributing to an increasing number of floods, storms and wildfires, it is contributing to the mental health consequences of such events. Although the majority of people show impressive resilience, there is a significant increase in levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse among people who have experienced extreme weather events. Such effects can linger for months, or longer, after the experience.
Most people are probably not surprised to hear that extreme weather events threaten mental health. But another, less obvious, impact may affect even more people: A growing body of research shows that higher temperatures also put mental health at risk. Studies in countries around the world have shown a connection between heat and suicide, psychiatric hospitalizations, and the use of psychiatric services. Possible reasons that are being investigated include heat as a stressor, physiological effects on the nervous system, and disrupted sleep.
A third route is less dramatic but is becoming increasingly apparent: worry associated with the awareness of climate change. As we hear more and more about the impacts of climate change, it is hard to remain indifferent — due to empathy for those affected, but also concern about what the future may hold for all of us. Some young people are even questioning whether or not to have children. There is growing attention to the experience of these emotional impacts, which have been variously (with subtle differences in meaning) called “climate anxiety,” “climate grief,” or “eco-anxiety.”
We are only beginning to obtain systematic data that show the incidence of these emotions, but research suggests that a majority of people feel “at least some” eco-anxiety, and for some people it is impairing their ability to sleep, work or enjoy themselves. At that level it is a mental health concern.
Not everyone’s mental health is equally affected by climate change. Some, clearly, are more vulnerable due to their geographic location: people who live in areas prone to storms, wildfire, floods or sea-level rise. Physical differences put others at risk: Those with physical disabilities may worry more about their ability to escape, or cope with, the impacts of extreme weather; children, whose nervous systems are still developing, are more likely to experience long-term effects of early trauma. Others are financially, socially or culturally susceptible.
Financial resources allow a certain amount of protection, like air conditioning or backup generators, leaving those low in economic status more at risk from the climate. Social systems that discriminate against some groups may put them in harm’s way, like African Americans who have been relegated to less desirable, flood-prone, neighborhoods or Latinx agricultural workers who have to work outdoors under increasingly dangerous conditions.
And some cultures, particularly those of Indigenous Peoples, emphasize the importance of connections between people and the natural world, so changes in the natural world may have greater emotional and practical impact on their lives. But even relatively privileged people, from winegrowers in California to coastal residents in Florida, are feeling the threat of climate change.
Mental health problems are real problems. They affect our social relations, our physical health, and our ability to work. Coping with climate change requires us to recognize the full range of impacts and to strengthen our mental health infrastructure, in order to provide the resources and support for people who are struggling. Recognizing the potential for mental health impacts, and the way in which they may affect all of us, could perhaps help to increase our motivation and our collective will to address the problem before it becomes much, much worse.
Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio. She has published a number of papers on the mental health implications of climate change and is a lead author on the forthcoming sixth assessment report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Follow her on Twitter: @sdclaytonphd