Climate change and mental health

Sometimes I think about climate change and feel a gripping fear. I might step outside to a 60-degree day in the middle of January or read an article about the worsening state of our air, land, and sea, and experience a sudden panic. I have a feeling of impending doom, lack of control, anger at decision-makers who aren’t doing enough to fix this global problem.

But that’s just me.

How does climate change affect other people’s mental health? In previous posts, I’ve written about how the way climate change is framed can affect the way people think about it — whether they think it’s a real threat and what they might be willing to do about it. This post takes acceptance of climate change as a starting point, and focuses on the psychological effects of perceived and actual effects of climate change. Once climate change is accepted or experienced as a reality, what are its impacts on mental health?

A recent study revealed two distinct responses. While some people have little anxiety, others experience substantial stress, and in some cases, depression, to their perception of the impacts of climate change. What causes different people to have such different reactions? The researchers examined the extent to which people had egoistic concern (about the effects of climate change on themselves), altruistic concern (about the effects of climate change on others, such as future generations), and biospheric concern (about nature, plants, and animals). They found that people with biospheric concern reported the highest levels of stress related to climate change, as well as the highest levels of depression.

Other reviews (1)(2) describe additional mental health conditions that, for some people, are linked to the gradual effects of climate change. These include anxiety, depression, and substance use. We can also expect climate change to negatively impact physical health — for example leading to increases in asthma, allergies, exposure to pests and toxic substances, and heat-related death, and a decrease in general fitness.

The gradual effects of climate change will continue to wear away at our mental and physical health until we address the problem.

The sudden effects of climate change are also harmful to mental health. As natural disasters become more numerous and more intense, they threaten the mental health of those who are directly affected. One project that shows these mental health impacts clearly is the The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project (“RISK”) Project. For this project, the researchers had already begun a longitudinal study of vulnerable women (poor single mothers in community college) in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. After the hurricane, they continued to conduct surveys and interviews of these women, which allowed them to better understand the tolls that a natural disaster can take on mental health, particularly for people who are already vulnerable.

An article on “Katrina Brain” reports what they found: 4 years after the storm, 20% of their participants still reported anxiety and depression that was higher than they had reported before the storm. A small group of participants reported even more serious mental health impacts like PTSD. The mental health impacts of storms like Katrina tend to be especially bad for people with low incomes and those without strong social supports.

Fortunately, about a third of the participants reported “post-traumatic growth,” a sign of resilience. It’s reassuring that we aren’t all completely doomed to psychological ruin when disasters hit, but it’s not consolation for the “psychological scars” that disasters like Katrina inflict on those who are directly affected and most vulnerable.


Cover photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

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