Climate Change is Taking a Toll on our Mental Health

By Corrine Liu, BA Medicine, Health, and Society & German, Expected 2019

We have 21 years to fix our problems. This is the terrifying message from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel report on Climate Change released last September. It predicted that humans could witness a major environmental catastrophe as early as 2040. To visualize the gravity of this, think of the final panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: a “paradise that’s been degraded and destroyed,” with a world of worsening food shortages, wildfires, a mass die-off of coral reefs, and other cataclysmic conditions.

The prospect of a world afflicted by climate change elicits a sense of pervasive loss, devastation, and fear about catastrophes in a very near future. The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concluded that climate change presents “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” This harsh reality may leave many of us rattled and hopeless. A recent study demonstrated that there are 467 different pathways by which human health, water, food, the economy, infrastructure, and security have already been impacted by climate hazards. For example, researchers in Central America found that extreme heat brought on by global warming is damaging outdoor workers’ kidneys.

Our environment and physical health should not be our only concern. According to a 2017 report co-authored by the American Psychological Association (APA), Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica, “climate change-induced disasters have a high potential for immediate and severe psychological trauma.” Climate change is putting pressure on our ecosystems and our infrastructure, but it’s also taking a toll on our mental health. The authors highlighted that among a sample of people living in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, suicides and suicidal thoughts more than doubled, nearly 50% of the people developed a mood or anxiety disorder, and 1 in 6 people developed post-traumatic stress disorder. This data informs that the destruction and loss of home due to climate impacts may diminish the sense of belonging and solace that people derive from their connectedness to the land.

In areas where catastrophic natural events not only make lands uninhabitable but also destabilize society, people are forced to take shelter overseas. Since 2008, an average of 24 million people has been displaced by catastrophic weather disasters each year. As projections of climate changes, such as desert expansion and sea level rise, progress over time, 143 million people  from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be displaced by 2050. Inevitably, they will need to cope with displacement-related stressors that influence mental health: social isolation resulting from the loss of social networks; unemployment due to a lack relevant work skills or to host-society restrictions on permission to work; poverty and a lack of access to basic resources; perceived discrimination; increased family violence; and difficulties navigating settings of resettlement. As climate change worsens storms and droughts, climate scientists and migration experts expect the number of globally displaced persons will rise. But so far there’s no international agreement on who should qualify as a climate refugee — much less a plan to manage the growing scope of predicament. For this reason, climate refugees also face stressors that include uncertainty regarding their legal status, the possibility of being deported to the country from which they fled, and for many, prolonged detention in asylum holding camps, while their asylum claims are adjudicated. The depletion of these refugees’ coping resources by continuously stressful environmental conditions leaves them more vulnerable to the traumatic effects of climate change.

Those who are lucky enough to have stayed out of the direct path of climate change may be exposed to “unrelenting day-by-day despair.” Amid abstract global temperature trends and unfathomable volumes of melted sea ice, the everyday intimacy of climate goes under-acknowledged. Psychologically, however, such interaction takes shape in “some of the most resounding chronic psychological consequences,” according to the APA report. “Gradual, long-term changes in climate can also surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.” Over long periods of time, chronic stress has been shown to suppress the immune system, “leaving people more vulnerable to pathogens in the air and water,” the researchers wrote. In other words, mental health is intimately linked with physical health, and prolonged despair can lead to disease. Susan Clayton, a psychologist at the College of Wooster predicted, “as we have more natural disasters, one would expect to also have increases in [depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and domestic abuse].” As natural disasters become more commonplace, so will mental illness.

The psychological effects of climate change are affecting even the youngest, most vulnerable members of society: our children. A study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Oregon State University found an association between experiencing a natural disaster and developing anxiety, depression, and increased aggression in children as young as two to nine years old. Don Arnold, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, likened climate change to one of this generation’s versions of the threat of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Thermonuclear war was an anxiety for kids in my generation and I think climate change, along with gun violence and […] social media is probably causing anxiety in kids today.”

We’re living through an unprecedented peak in devastating natural disasters, and with the trend we’re following, things will only getting worse. A recent article in Nature warns that unless we “aggressively” reduce our emission of greenhouse gases, by 2100 some areas of the world will be simultaneously exposed to up to six severe natural disasters simultaneously. On a more positive note, research has found that people with strong social connections and networks during, and in the wake, of a natural disaster tend to have lower rates of psychological distress and a higher capacity to withstand traumatic experiences. Restoring economic and housing resources to populations affected by a natural disaster would significantly reduce the mental health burden in populations, particularly those with resource loss, after a disaster.

Actions to mitigate climate change not only offer a wealth of immediate benefits like clean air and food security but also strengthen our mental wellbeing. Public transportation, for example, helps nearby households reduce 39 to 50 percent of their energy use, promotes cognitive functions, and augments community mental health by creating opportunities and networks to increase community cohesion. These mental health concerns must inform policymaking and a system-wide societal shift in how climate change is thought about and what the potential long-term impacts might be. Consequently, we should look beyond the mental health concerns to address the core causes of our changing climate and build social, economic, and environmental resiliency.