How Climate Change Affects Mental Health

New report shows global warming affects our psyches just as much as our earth

Posted Apr 01, 2017

By Katherine Schreiber

When we talk about climate change, we tend to think about its effects on our environment — melting polar ice caps, extreme swings in weather, more frequent droughts, flooding, and higher incidences of natural disasters. But what about the effect on our moods, thoughts, and feelings? A new report written by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica argues that our mental wellbeing is just as vulnerable to global warming as is our earth.

Take, for example, the after effects of natural disasters, which the authors of the report argue have the most immediate impact on mental health “in the form of the trauma and shock.” Such trauma and shock arise in response to losing personal property or livelihood, losing a loved one, or experiencing personal injury. “Terror, anger, shock and other intense negative emotions that can dominate people's initial response may eventually subside, only to be replaced by post-traumatic stress disorder,” they add.

The authors offer an example of the spike in suicide and suicidal ideation among residents of Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, as documented by Kessler et al., 2008 and Lowe, Manove, & Rhodes, 2013. Following the traumatic incident, they report, both suicides and thoughts of suicide doubled, while one in six residents met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, 49 percent of residents suffered from an anxiety or mood disorder.

Adverse mental health events also rose after Hurricane Sandy. A 2014 study by Boscarino et al. found that 14.5% of people affected by the experience displayed PTSD symptoms. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, extreme bushfires accounted for 15.6% of affected populations experiencing PTSD (Bryant et al., 2014).

This is concerning not only because PTSD is an awful and often debilitating experience for sufferers but also because its symptoms are linked with a range of behavioral issues, including, the authors note, “higher levels of suicide, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, violence, aggression, interpersonal difficulties, and job-related difficulties (Simpson et al., 2011).”

The separation from close family members and friends that frequently occurs following a natural disaster (due to relocation, loss of job, or loss of a significant other or family member) can also put an immense strain on social relationships, the authors add. While this can ratchet up social isolation and feelings of insecurity it can also raise the likelihood of domestic abuse, which the authors point out “increases among families who have experienced disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Fritze et al., 2008; Harville, Taylor, Tesfai, Xiong, & Buekens, 2011; Keenan, Marshall, Nocera, & Runyan, 2004).”

Natural disasters alone aren’t the only causes of climate change-related mental health problems. “Changes in climate affect agriculture, infrastructure and livability,” the authors explain, “which in turn affect occupations and quality of life and can force people to migrate. These effects may lead to loss of personal and professional identity, loss of social support structures, loss of a sense of control and autonomy and other mental health impacts such as feelings of helplessness, fear and fatalism.”

The stress of worrying about climate change’s impacts may also lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, while heightening people’s risk for depression and anxiety (Simpson et al., 2011).

Extreme temperatures in their own right have a unique influence on behavior and wellbeing. As research by Craig Anderson (2001) and Simister & Cooper (2005) has shown, aggression increases as temperatures rise. Thus as summers get hotter, so might our tempers — likely due, the researchers explain, “to the impacts of heat on arousal, which results in decreases in attention and self-regulation, as well as an increase in the availability of negative and hostile thoughts.” Heat can also impact our ability to think clearly, they add, “which may reduce the ability to resolve a conflict without violence (Pilcher, Nadler, & Busch, 2002).” Higher temperatures have also been found in other research to increase the risk of suicide (Lee et al., 2006).

Add to this mounting fear and anxiety derived from watching the world around us change in irreversible ways — coupled with the helplessness of feeling as if we cannot stop or reverse global warming— and you have another effect of climate change on mental health: “Watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations, may be an additional source
of stress (Searle & Gow, 2010),” the authors write. “Albrecht (2011) and others have termed this anxiety ecoanxiety. Qualitative research provides evidence that some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change (Moser, 2013).”

While the report is indeed dire the authors do offer a number of strategies to cope with the mental health effects of climate change. They recommend honing resilience, fostering optimism, cultivating active coping and self-regulation skills, getting involved in meaningful practices or activities, strengthening connectedness to family and community, and having a preparedness plan for natural disasters or extreme weather conditions.

Making environmentally friendly lifestyle choices can also help offset some of the burden of climate change on our psyches. (And make us feel as if we are doing something to counteract its effects.) For example, the authors recommend opting to walk or bike to work whenever possible. They also point towards research linking the usage of public transportation to increased community cohesion and, by way of its prompting individuals to exercise more than they would if they were driving, lower levels of depression and stress (e.g., Allen, 2007; Wener & Evens, 2007; Litman, 2010). 

Advocating for more green spaces within our communities can also be a useful way to boost mental (and physical health). “Parks and green corridors have been connected to improved air quality and can increase mental well-being,” the authors note. “For example, trees sequester carbon,
and green spaces absorb less heat than paved surfaces and buildings. More time spent interacting with nature has been shown to significantly lower stress levels and reduce stress- related illness. Interestingly, this evidence is supported across socioeconomic status, age, and gender (Grahn & Stigsdotter, 2003).”

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