When we hear the words “climate change” many things come to mind, including intense heat waves and droughts, increase in natural disasters, loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise, and concern for the overall health of our planet. Rarely, do we think about mental health. Yet a new study, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, is bringing the impact on our mental health to the forefront of climate change discussions. The report was compiled as a way to support the mental health of Americans as our climate continues to rapidly change.
Our Climate is Changing Fast
As global temperatures continue to rise and we witness pieces of ice the size of Delaware ready to break off in the Antarctic, there’s no denying that climate change is happening.
These changes to our climate are clearly impacting our physical health as evidenced by fatalities caused by severe weather episodes, and the increase in asthma and allergies when seasonal temperatures fluctuate and seasons swiftly change. And now, we’re discovering that climate change is affecting our mental health and emotional well-being as well.
According to the study, there’s a direct connection between our physical health, mental health, and community mental health and climate change. The convergence of these can cause an increase in stress and anxiety, loss of community identity, and heightened aggression and violence.
Some mental health issues arise directly from natural disasters stemming from experiencing flooding, wildfires, and hurricanes. Those impacted by these severe disasters can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, stress, addiction, and depression. For example in a study of Hurricane Katrina 1 in 6 people met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, rates of suicidal thoughts can be more than doubled, and more than 50% of people living in affected areas developed an anxiety or mood disorder. Stress from the experience of an extreme weather event can cause insomnia, and compromise an immune system, which in turn can cause missed days of work due to illness. Additional stressors, such as the economic stress from lost income, can create a vicious cycle – impacting both physical and emotional health.
According to the report, stress from natural disasters is associated with increases in domestic violence and child abuse. Also, a change in temperature has also been shown – as heat goes up so does violence and suicide attempts.
Not all Americans are impacted equally by climate change and those with certain vulnerabilities such as pre-existing disabilities and/or chronic illness are more likely to experience a decline in mental health.
Some are going to be more physically vulnerable because they live and work in areas more susceptible to natural disasters that impact their livelihoods such as farming and fishing communities. When these communities are threatened they not only experience stress and anxiety but they also direct threats to their social connections. This can can lead to increased drug and alcohol abuse. The elderly and children are also particularly vulnerable.
What You Can Do
As our climate continues to change we’re going to see a growing impact on our physical and mental health. There are a few things families can focus on at home and in our communities, to create a shield against some of the projected climate mental health impacts.
Here are a few things you can do:
- Make and practice household emergency plans.
- Participate in mindset training to prepare for adversity and adaptation through increased awareness of emotions.
- Take care of yourself and foster healthy daily habits.
- Connect with family, friends, neighbors, and other groups to build strong social networks.