Is Climate Change Our Next Mental Health Crisis?

Americans are anxious, grieving and guilt-ridden about the state of our planet.

Posted May 01, 2019

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

Stress, anxiety, depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. These are the potential mental health effects of climate change. Climate scientists and psychologists have seen a significant increase in what's been called climate anxiety, eco-anxiety, climate change distress, climate grief, and ecological grief, especially in the past five years.  Whatever the name, it is real, it is increasing, and it is a serious threat to our emotional wellbeing.

Mental health issues related to climate risks are on the rise, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 report, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and GuidanceSusan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster and coauthor of the report, says: "We can say that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing."

Those affected include survivors of climate events such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, but also those who study and communicate about climate change.

CLIMATE ANXIETY: WHO IT AFFECTS

America is broken into six distinct attitudes regarding climate change, which the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications calls the Six Americas:

Alarmed [29 percent of respondents] are fully convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change and are already taking individual, consumer, and political action to address it. The Concerned [30 percent] are also convinced that global warming is happening and a serious problem, but have not yet engaged the issue personally.

Three other Americas – the Cautious [17 percent], the Disengaged [5 percent], and the Doubtful [9 percent] – represent different stages of understanding and acceptance of the problem, and none are actively involved. The final America – the Dismissive [9 percent] are very sure it is not happening and are actively involved as opponents of a national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Six in ten Americans are now either Alarmed or Concerned and the numbers keep growing—those who are Alarmed doubled since 2013 and grew 8 points since March of 2018. Only 9 percent actively deny climate change, although another 9 percent is doubtful. Still, the dubious end of the spectrum is shrinking.

Those who spend the most time in nature and show concern for plants and animals are the most likely to be depressed about climate change, perhaps because they have seen its effects most closely, according to research by Sabrina Helm and colleagues at the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment. In fact, climate scientists are among the most affected by climate anxiety. Helm says: "Climate change is a persistent global stressor, but the consequences of it appear to be slowly evolving; they're fairly certain to happen—we know that now but the impact on individuals seems to be growing really slowly and needs to be taken very seriously."

CLIMATE ANXIETY: HOW IT AFFECTS

Extreme weather, such as the bomb cyclone that hit Colorado and the plains states early this spring, can cause and trigger a multitude of psychological responses, according to the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, including:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), anxiety, depression, complicated grief, survivor guilt, vicarious trauma, recovery fatigue, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. 

The overarching threats of a changing climate can also incite despair and hopelessness as actions to address the ‘wicked problem’ of climate change seem intangible or insignificant in comparison to the scale and magnitude of the threats. Paradoxically, these same disastrous circumstances may also inspire altruism, compassion, optimism, and foster a sense of meaning and personal growth (otherwise referred to as post-traumatic growth) as people band together to salvage, rebuild, and console amongst the chaos and loss of a changing climate.

The magnitude of the risks of global warming can cause a cognitive break that makes some unable to directly look at the problem or acknowledge the information, says climate scientist Sarah Myhre. It’s a problem with layers of emotions: anger, grief, fear for the future, and shame that we are part of the problem.  

Personal blame, a sense that “it’s my fault,” can make it difficult for people to absorb the traumatic information about a warming climate, says Jeffrey Kiehl, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Knowing that you are not alone helps.

Climate variables, such as weather that is too hot, too cold, or with sudden barometric drops, are strongly correlated to suicide rates, according to research in the Annals of General Psychiatry. “This raises concerns that climate change could lead to an increase in suicide rates,” write the authors. 

Disability claims for depression and acute stress increase as temperatures decrease significantly, according to the Integrated Benefits Institute.

The strain of climate worry is showing up in psychologist’s offices, says Lise van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington and co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. “For a long time we were able to hold ourselves in a distance, listening to data and not being affected emotionally,” she told NBC News. “But it’s not just a science abstraction anymore. I’m increasingly seeing people who are in despair, and even panic."

READ MORE ON THE CLIMATE AND MENTAL HEALTH:

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