Mental Health and Climate Change

It’s not surprising that we aren’t talking about the mental health impacts of climate change – mostly because we have a difficult time discussing mental health in general. The physiological and physical health impacts of climate change are well known: they include a rise in vector-bourne diseases, heat-related symptoms, injury from extreme weather events, water and food security concerns, malnutrition, amongst others. However, the implications of climate change on mental health are vast; indications of which are already trickling in- yet, psychological impacts remain relatively unexplored. The increasing awareness of the existence and potential impacts of climate change as a threat to well-being, can in and of itself be a source of distress, anxiety and fear.

Earlier this month, a group of 90 scientists from 40 countries published a report which warned the international community of the catastrophic impacts of climate change over the next 20 years. The same day, a consortium of top US research institutions published a report which indicated the potential that climate change has to worsen mental health on a largescale; supported by evidence which concluded the correlative relationship between higher temperatures and increased reports of mental health illnesses. The report found that all three climate change experiences – the immediate effects of weather, warming temperatures over longer periods, and exposure to extreme weather events- had a significant association with deteriorated states of mental health. It further noted that “less-temperate climates, insufficient resources and greater reliance on ecological systems may see more severe effects of climate change on mental health”.

Extreme weather events such as flooding, hurricanes and wildfires have been routinely linked to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Extreme temperatures and heat waves have too been documented to increase mood and behavioural disorders amongst those with pre-existing mental illnesses. However, it is important to note that it is difficult to provide evidence for a causal relationship between mental health and climate change-related incidents for a number of reasons. For one, there are few visible indicators of trauma when individuals are struggling with mental health issues, and two, some mental health symptoms may emerge months or years after a traumatic experience, making it difficult to accurately identify and assign triggers. In response to the aftermath of a wildfire, for example, the immediate goals tend to deal with resulting physical effects such as burns, smoke inhalation and providing shelter. Psychological impacts may never be identified, let alone addressed.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a literature review which identified ‘ecoanxiety’ as a mental health condition, finding that natural disasters, periods of prolonged doubt, food shortages, rising sea levels and the gradual loss of natural environments from changing climatic systems can (and will) cause a number of psychological consequences. ‘Solastagia’, a term coined by a German philosopher refers to a particular climate-induced anxiety condition which stems from the destruction of home environments. Existential worries apart, climate change also has the ability to destabilize economics and upset ecosystems that can have a substantial impact on social and economic well-being.

The mental health implications of climate change can affect all, but the impact will be heightened in marginalized populations: including (pregnant) women, children, the elderly and resource-based workers. At the community-level, droughts and changes in sea-levels related to climate change can threaten natural resources and put a strain on communities which may result in displacement of populations and increased rates of violence and crime. The loss of land-based occupations and activities can affect personal and familial socioeconomic status, including financial instability and a disrupted sense of societal belonging.

Perhaps the best way to think about this relation is to see severe weather events as a societal risk amplifier – which applies to mental health as well. As individuals, the way we respond to traumatic events is influenced not just by our personal resilience but also the resilience of our societal networks and communities. Those with strong connections around them tend to have lower rates of psychological stress and a higher capacity to withstand traumatic climate-related experiences, during and in the wake of a natural disaster.

For the health-based implications of climate change to be accurately assessed, it is necessary to include both physical and mental health. A comprehensive approach is required, one that is able to accurately monitor the multi-causal pathways of climate impacts on mental health with respect to the societal, environmental and socioeconomic contexts of the region in question. The role that mental health plays in personal, economic and social well-being is well documented – understanding and examining the link between mental health and climate change further reaffirm the substantial risks that climate vulnerabilities pose to human systems.

Published in the Daily Times on 27 October 2018.