Climate crisis: A mental health emergency

BY LAURA KALITSIS — PUBLICATIONS OFFICER

Climate change is posing a serious threat to both the physical and mental health of humans worldwide. The repercussions of climate change such as increased intensity and frequency of dangerous weather events, rising temperatures and sea levels, as well as loss of land and biodiversity, have cascading effects on human health. The mental health impacts of climate change are multifaceted and amplify the current mental health challenges and health inequities already faced by marginalised populations. Compared to the physical health impacts of climate change, the mental health effects are less understood and often overlooked. Therefore, in order to protect mental wellbeing, we must first understand the ways in which climate change affects mental health.

Direct impacts of climate change on mental health

The direct mental health impacts of climate change are commonly discussed in relation to dangerous weather events. Storms, floods, heat waves and bushfires are types of extreme weather events that endanger mental wellbeing. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are mental health problems that can be caused by the destruction and trauma associated with these extreme weather events1. Loss of loved ones, homes that hold cherished possessions and memories due to extreme weather events can induce feelings of shock, despair and grief for survivors2. Whilst communities may physically and socially recover from damages caused by major weather events, feelings of distress and anxiety may persist or resurface well after the extreme weather event has occurred3.

Indirect impacts of climate change on mental health

The indirect impacts of climate change on mental health are complex and dependent on underlying social inequalities. The indirect consequences of climate change on mental health result from the destruction of physical infrastructure and social networks, food and water insecurities, as well as conflict and displacement1. For example, droughts are a devastating and long-term consequence of climate change that adversely affect mental health in many ways. Droughts cause food and water shortages and insecurities4, which in turn leads to emotional and financial stress for populations reliant on or involved in agricultural industries such as agricultural workers and outdoor labourers, as well as those living in remote and rural geographical areas1. Extended episodes of drought can also lead to conflict, forced migration and displacement4,5. People who experience forced migration due to environmental stressors associated with climate change are commonly referred to as climate migrants. As a consequence of displacement, climate migrants may endure a loss of cultural identity and sense of belonging5. Additionally, climate migrants may also experience discrimination and racism in their new host country which can exacerbate the mental health problems and emotional distress that they may already be facing5.

The overarching threat of climate change

Climate anxiety refers to the perception and recognition of the overarching global threat of climate change. Given that the consequences of climate change are only increasing in intensity and impacting more people over time, climate anxiety is likely to be an ongoing and growing mental health challenge6. Climate anxiety encompasses feelings of uncertainty about the future environment, hopelessness about the lack of climate action and distress about the disruption of connections to land and home environments6. Three novel psychological terms have been coined to help describe the anxiety associated with climate change. Firstly, ecoanxiety, which refers to the distress people face from constantly being surrounded by climate change and dangerous weather events1. Secondly, ecoparalysis, which refers to the hopelessness and frustration of inadequate action to mitigate the risks of climate change1. Finally, the term solastalgia, which describes the stress associated with detrimental environmental change that adversely impacts home environments and one’s connection to their home environment7. Climate anxiety is becoming increasingly recognised, however, further steps need to be taken to understand the magnitude of this mental health issue and ensure that specific interventions can be designed and implemented.  

Strategies, actions and next steps

Interventions that address the effects of climate change and mental health include mitigation and adaptation actions. Climate change mitigation involves actions that reduce the source of greenhouse gas emissions and enhance greenhouse gas sinks8. For the effectiveness of climate change mitigation actions to be maximised, it is crucial that global leaders collaborate to prioritise such actions and allocate the necessary funding and resources8. Similarly, climate change adaptation strategies can be implemented to ensure that communities are able to cope with the consequences of climate change8. Examples of climate change adaptation actions include preparation for dangerous weather events, increasing education and awareness of the risks of climate change, and ensuring that there are sufficient health and psychological resources for disaster prone communities1. Additionally, psychological adaptation measures can be used to help affected individuals manage their feelings of distress and anxiety that result from climate change1.  Primary care interventions, cognitive based interventions, individual and group therapy sessions, and crisis counselling are all potential psychological adaptations and aim to provide affected individuals with appropriate coping and anxiety management strategies 1,6.

It is evident that the consequences of climate change impact mental health. Whether mental health problems and emotional distress are caused by dangerous weather events or the overarching threat that climate change poses, the complexities of this public health issue are continuously growing and unravelling. To protect mental wellbeing, especially in those of marginalised communities and of younger generations, effective climate change mitigation actions are vital. Preservation of the environment and connections to the environment is fundamental to good mental wellbeing and can only be achieved if appropriate strategies are voiced, heard and implemented.


REFERENCES

  1. Hayes K, Blashki G, Wiseman J, Burke S, Reifels L. Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions. Int J Ment Health Syst. 2018;12:28. doi:10.1186/s13033-018-0210-6
  2. Morganstein JC, Ursano RJ. Ecological Disasters and Mental Health: Causes, Consequences, and Interventions. Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:1. https://doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00001
  3. Clayton S. Climate Change and Mental Health. Curr Environ Health Rep. Mar 2021;8(1):1-6. doi:10.1007/s40572-020-00303-3
  4. Vins H, Bell J, Saha S, Hess JJ. The Mental Health Outcomes of Drought: A Systematic Review and Causal Process Diagram. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2015;12(10):13251-13275
  5. Gleick PH. Water, drought, climate change, and conflict in Syria. Weather, climate, and society. 2014;6(3):331-340.
  6. Clayton S. Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2020;74:102263. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263
  7. Albrecht G, Sartore GM, Connor L, et al. Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change. Australas Psychiatry. 2007;15 Suppl 1:S95-8. doi:10.1080/10398560701701288
  8. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate change 2014: Mitigation of climate change. 2014. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

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