The Green Mind

Finding the human place in nature

Ready for a Hotter Planet?

Climate change and environmental decline could create mental health emergencies.


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A few years ago a 17-year-old Australian boy was diagnosed with “climate change delusion” after he tried to stop drinking water and was found compulsively checking for leaking taps. He had learned about the climate-change-amplified droughts afflicting his country and thought that his water consumption would deplete supplies and lead to millions of deaths. Anxiety about the problem also stimulated a major depressive disorder.[1] 

Not all psychological consequences of climate change and environmental ruin are so immediately identifiable. We’re entering an era in which widespread knowledge of environmental catastrophe and even possible societal collapse is replacing the specter of nuclear Armageddon and increasingly becoming part of everyday experience. That knowledge of a degraded, jeopardized world is playing out in our psyches in ways that we’re only beginning to come to grips with—and in ways that our mental health systems are not prepared to cope with.

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The psychologists Thomas J. Doherty and Susan Clayton outlined the various psychological impacts of climate change in a paper published in American Psychologist.[2]They identified several categories of affliction: direct impacts of stress and loss that people experience from extreme weather events such as the flooding of New Orleans or New York City; indirect impacts—“threats to emotional well-being based on observation of impacts and concern or uncertainty about future risks”;[3] and psychosocial impacts—chronic effects on people and communities from excessive heat, drought, migrations, and climate-related conflicts.

Climate change hits us on multiple fronts. Read this previous post or this one if you don’t believe global warming is real.

Just last month scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that unpredictable rainfall patterns were beginning to curtail world food supplies by reducing yields of wheat and maize (corn in the United States);[4] such reports probably will only get worse over time, stimulating even more anxiety among the public.

Our Mental Health Care System Isn’t Ready

Because of the scale of the problems, the US mental health system is unprepared to handle the burgeoning widespread psychological stresses of climate change, elaborates another report, sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation.[5] Our mental health systems are not ready to treat chronic problems related to climate change; nor are our systems of first-responders, who must work in the contexts of more frequent and increasingly severe climate-change-intensified disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. And the stakes are high.

About 200 million Americans will experience serious psychological distress from climate-related events and incidents in coming decades, according to the NWF report. Anxiety about climate-change-related problems already affects many people, usually silently, but those problems will move to the top of people’s minds as reports of the gravity of the situation appear in the media. Many Americans see global warming as a problem that’s distant in both time and space, and they don’t consciously experience such distress. Yet without knowing it, they may nevertheless suffer anxiety related to climate change, manifest as a “vague unease” about what is happening in the world. It’s common to not know exactly what bothers us. 

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As the problems related to climate change—fiercer storms, flooding, extended droughts, diminishing water supplies in some areas—become more pronounced, so will our anxiety and stress about them. Are we ready?

The Most Vulnerable

The NWF report’s authors point to several particularly vulnerable classes of people, including 70 million American children, who may suffer not only long term stresses and anxieties but also acute reactions to the extreme weather and other disasters that are already becoming more frequent and intense. People with pre-existing mental health conditions, about 60 million Americans, will face “additional challenges” that will compound their ongoing problems. The elderly, already marginal in society and in health, will also be at greater risk.

Raging Against Unnatural Disasters

That fact that such disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the droughts that have stricken Australia and the United States can no longer be seen as truly natural adds another dimension to the anxiety and stress arising from such disasters. Research shows that when people view a disaster as avoidable, they find it harder to accept the event and move on with their lives.[6] Anger sets in at the indifference to public welfare that seems to be at the root of climate change.

We can expect a big price tag for all of the additional mental health care needed to respond adequately to climate-change-related issues. Such costs have already been seen in event-related healthcare responses to Katrina and other disasters.

Onward


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Many steps are needed to ready our healthcare systems to meet these demands. They include preparing and deploying mental health incident response teams and giving priority to training therapists and others who serve the most vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, current mental health patients, and soldiers, who will in many cases bear the brunt of the psychological costs through participation in armed conflict around resources made scarcer in various regions due to climate change. Practitioners and other caregivers need to develop comprehensive plans and guidelines for responding to our environmental dilemmas. The psychological outcomes of global warming need to be factored into public policy decisions at all levels.

A new field has emerged in recent decades that will aid psychologists’ efforts to respond to environmentally related despair, angst, anxiety, and depression. “Ecopsychology” promises to reground psychology in nature by exploring not just interpersonal relationships but also our connections to nature. Ecopsychology practitioners often encourage patients to spend more time outdoors and help patients understand how culture and family life influence how they approach the natural world. In ecopsychology-oriented therapy, people can uncover pent-up feelings about environmental destruction and release that pent-up energy toward positive change in the world.

Thomas J. Doherty, an ecopsychology practitioner as well as a researcher and educator, recommends that clients not only recognize their own environmental concerns but also accept that there are limits to what they can control with respect to society’s destructiveness. One of the practices he recommends for calming anxieties seems like valuable advice to all of us in this fast-paced world: “fasts” from shopping, the news, and email while enjoying more calming activities such as meditation and gardening.[7]                                               

Learn about my book: Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment.

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Follow my environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature

Read more of my posts on The Green Mind.

 

[1] Mary Fallon, “Dark clouds on a clear day,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 12, 2009. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/dark-clouds-on-a-clear-day-20091111-ia0i.html.

[2] Thomas J. Doherty and Susan Clayton, “The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change,” American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 4, May-June 2011, 265–276. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-66-4-265.pdf

[3] Thomas J. Doherty and Susan Clayton, “The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change,” American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 4, May-June 2011, 265–276. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-66-4-265.pdf

[4] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Climate change 'already affecting food supply' – UN,” The Guardian, March 30, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-food-supply-un

[5] Kevin J. Coyle, JD and Lise Van Susteren, MD, National Wildlife Federation Climate education Program, With Support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System Is Not Adequately Prepared.” February, 2012. http://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Global-Warming/Reports/Psych_Effects_Climate_Change_Full_3_23.ashx

[6] Kevin J. Coyle, JD and Lise Van Susteren, MD, National Wildlife Federation Climate education Program, With Support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the U.S. Mental Health Care System Is Not Adequately Prepared.” February, 2012. http://www.nwf.org/~/media/PDFs/Global-Warming/Reports/Psych_Effects_Climate_Change_Full_3_23.ashx

[7] Gabrielle Glaser, “Anxious About Earth’s Troubles? There’s Treatment,” The New York Times, February 16, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/16/us/16therapy.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0

 

Kenneth Worthy, Ph.D., author of Invisible Nature, is a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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