Climate change and mental health

Climate Change and Mental Health

Climate change is a devastating occurrence in the environment. As the world warms, the climate crisis risks human health and homes while damaging our ecosystems and adversely affecting biodiversity. We can also lose our family, friends, and properties to natural disasters and adverse weather events. There’s a lot to be concerned about. However, the relationship between climate change and mental health doesn’t get the attention it warrants.  

Climate change affects our mental health more than we care to admit. From a general sense of anxiety and concern for the state of the planet and its inhabitants to more significant loss or displacement due to climate events, the changing climate can impact our mental health. 

Keep reading to learn more about the effects of climate change on our mental health. This article also explores ways to reduce the impacts of climate change on mental health. 

What is Climate Change?

Man with 1.5 degree climate change sign at a protest
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Global Climate change is a problem we experience collectively worldwide. Climate change is a shift in the temperature and weather of a region for a long time. Climate change can occur from natural causes like sun or volcanic activity. However, human activities have sped up climate change. 

The primary human activity that causes climate change is burning fossil fuels, which release harmful gases known as greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat within the atmosphere and disrupt the climate system7.

Whereas some people doubt the human impacts, the vast majority of scientists and the public alike recognize our warming world is a result of human activity3

Read more in our compilation of climate change facts

What is Mental Health? 

Mental health refers to the psychological well-being of a human. It is a mental state free from mental disorders and illnesses. A state of mental health allows us to interact and form relationships with others. It also allows us to perform social roles, manage change, and recognize, accept, and communicate positive thoughts and actions. 

Mental health allows us to manage our emotions, granting us an understanding of how humans function. Someone with good mental health has high self-esteem and a strong sense of self. 

Those who deviate from the norm of mental health have mental illnesses or disorders. These disorders often impede their interactions with themselves and society. These mental health problems are depression, anxiety, PTSD, and schizophrenia.

Read more in our compilation of mental health facts and explore what people with lived experience have to say in our mental health quotes

The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health

A kangaroo in the aftermath of Australia's forest fires in 2020.
A kangaroo in the aftermath of Australia's forest fires in 2020. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash

Climate change affects every part of our lives. It affects the environment and our mental and physical health. Until recently, we didn't bother to check for the effects of extreme weather events on mental health and existing mental health conditions. However, climate change and mental health go hand in hand. 

The potential effects of climate change on our mental health include stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some examples of climate events that contribute to mental health problems are:

  • Heat waves
  • Floods
  • Droughts
  • Hurricanes
  • Cyclones
  • Tornadoes
  • Desertification 

When exposed to these events, or simply from exposure to the facts about the harm we’re causing our planet, it can result in the development of mental illness, anxiety, and suffering. At the same time, some people exposed to extreme climate events find solace in substance abuse. The following section addresses climate change's various mental health impacts exploring studies that illustrate the correlations between:

  • The mental health consequences of extreme heat
  • Extreme weather events involving water and its mental health effects
  • Climate anxiety
  • Drought and Suicide

The Mental Health Consequences of Extreme Heat 

dry ground and dead try in a heatwave
Photo by Nicolas Houdayer on Unsplash

An extreme heat wave is a period of extremely high temperature and humidity synonymous with global warming. In an environment experiencing a heat wave, the temperature is higher than it would typically be, affecting our physical and mental health.

Heat waves can cause stress, leading to mood disorders, anxiety, dementia, and other mental health problems. People with existing mental health disorders are at a higher risk of dying from heat waves. 

Women and young people within the lower economic classes are prone to anxiety and mood disorders caused by natural disasters4.  High temperatures often lead to a higher risk of conflict among people. 

During heat waves, people spend more time outdoors. The high levels of discomfort can lead to increased feelings of rancor and animosity. The increase in violent thoughts could lead to physical altercations. Research shows that warmer regions are prone to more violent crime rates than cooler regions8. We can link climate change to battery, theft, and burglary.

Research conducted in Thailand also shows the mental health consequences of extremely hot weather on workers1. The study found that men are more exposed to heat stress than women. It also showed that people regularly exposed to occupational heat stress have a higher risk of psychological distress.

Extreme Weather Events Involving Water and its Mental Health Effects

Various extreme weather events involve water, like floods, hurricanes, and cyclones. The effects of these natural disasters, many of which are more severe and increasingly common due to climate change, can contribute to mental disorders.

Floods are one of the most frequent global climate conditions. Flooding can lead to the loss of homes and livelihoods, infectious diseases, and the destruction of infrastructures, threatening public health. People are also prone to drowning, electrocution, cardiovascular problems, and severe injury.

Victims of water-involved climate change have been known to exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, many victims and survivors of Bangladesh's Bhola cyclone suffer from mental health disorders2. These mental health issues develop because of losing loved ones and property. 

Climate Anxiety 

Climate change poses many dangers to human health. Young people are more prone to experiencing debilitating mental health problems because of the constant occurrence of extreme weather events. 

They often worry about the environment's debilitating state and how it will affect their future. They worry because climate change directly affects them. For instance, adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 showed signs of psychological stress due to a flooding incident in Pakistan in 2010.

People in areas vulnerable to climate change suffer more from mental health conditions. Studies conducted on 10,000 young adults across ten countries found that 59% worry about climate change. 84% of these young adults are worried about how climate change affects humans and the environment5. Half of these people said their anxiety, sadness, worry, anger, and helplessness affected their day-to-day life.

Anxiety induced by climate change often leads to panic attacks, loss of appetite, weakness, and insomnia.

Extreme weather events induce two types of anxiety. They are paranoid-schizoid anxiety and depressive anxiety. Paranoid-schizoid anxiety is the feeling of persecution and fear of destruction, and the defense system against these fears is the denial of reality. However, depressive anxiety involves feelings of loss, guilt, and fears of dependency.

Read more: What is Eco-Anxiety? And 11 Tips to Help Manage

Drought and Suicides

drought in us agricultural land
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), by mid-July 2021, almost 89% of the western region in the United States was suffering from drought, while an alarming 25% faced extreme drought circumstances. Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.

A drought is a long period of low rainfall, leading to a shortage of water supply, low crop production, and damage. Climate change can prolong droughts by making them more severe, frequent, and lasting.

Sadly. research shows a relationship between drought and farmers taking their own lives. Droughts in an area can also signify economic downfall because it is difficult to grow crops for consumption. The growth of crops depends on rainfall. With the absence of precipitation, farmers suffer a significant loss and end up in economic hardship because they cannot sell.

The hardship can result in high levels of depression and demoralization as they accept their fate. Some farmers attempt suicide because they can't sustain themselves and their families. Drought and extreme heat go hand in hand. So, the violent mental health effects of the intense heat present during a drought can contribute to their mental distress.

In Australia, there were long periods of drought between the years 1970 to 2007. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported suicide as the 14th cause of death in 2008. Further research showed an increased risk of suicide among rural men between the ages of 30-49. The study also discovered that drought and desertification lead to an increased risk of suicide in young people between the ages of 10-29 years old6.

Also, drought can lead to the forceful migration of indigenous communities. They often migrate because of their exposure to the consequences of climate change. Drought causes forest fires, poor harvest, inadequate soil fertility, and destruction of properties and livestock. Farmers with small areas deeply felt these issues, which can lead to mental health issues.

Mental health problems can also develop from the stress of relocating to a new region. The masses who benefit from the farmers' proceeds are also at risk of mental issues. Drought contributes to their mental disorders because of food insecurity, rainfall, and sweltering weather.

Ways to Reduce the Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health 

Renewable energy wind turbines
Photo by Alex Eckermann on Unsplash

Here are three ways to help address climate change's dangers to mental health

  • Mitigate climate change
  • Provision of emergency mental health services
  • Holistic approach 

Mitigate Climate Change 

The first best thing to do is to prevent the occurrence of climate change. To reduce it, we should change our harmful habits and transform our ways of life that speed up global warming. 

Let us all endeavor to reduce the usage of fossil fuels. The mining and using fossil fuels in various aspects of life release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Thus damaging the ozone layer. We should do our best to practice sustainable living and aim for zero waste, both of which help reduce our carbon footprint

Furthermore, the switch to renewable energy must accelerate, and we can all do our bit to lobby governments and decision-makers to act faster and holistically. 

Provision of Emergency Mental Health Services 

While there are climate campaigns to educate and advocate for climate change mitigation, we need to adapt to the current extreme weather events. Various countries should have structures to cater to the mental health of victims of extreme weather events. 

Most regions only cater to the physical and infrastructural damage. Many countries, especially those likely to face significant human displacement, must do more to ensure that professionals with psychiatric disorders can help victims deal with their stress and anxiety. 

Holistic Approach

Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation effectively reduce stress, anxiety, and PTSD. These activities can give victims renewed hope and the will to start afresh. Also, it can help them deal with grief. 

Conclusion 

Climate change and mental health are not mutually exclusive. A healthy environment certainly improves psychological well-being and vice versa. We need to gather community resources and use them to combat climate change and its impacts on mental health which will likely increase as the world warms. 

Post-traumatic stress accompanies any sort of climate crisis. It is essential to have structures and professionals to counsel victims. As a victim, you can also indulge in holistic activities to ease your emotional burden.

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1

Tawatsupa, B., Lim, L. L., Kjellstrom, T., Seubsman, S. A., Sleigh, A., & The Thai Cohort Study Team (2010). The association between overall health, psychological distress, and occupational heat stress among a large national cohort of 40,913 Thai workersGlobal health action3, 10.3402/gha.v3i0.5034.

2

Nahar, N., Blomstedt, Y., Wu, B. et al. Increasing the provision of mental health care for vulnerable, disaster-affected people in Bangladesh. BMC Public Health 14, 708 (2014).

3

Cook, John & Oreskes, Naomi & Doran, Peter & Anderegg, William & Verheggen, Bart & Maibach, Edward & Carlton, J & Lewandowsky, Stephan & Skuce, Andy & Green, Sarah & Nuccitelli, Dana & Jacobs, Peter & Richardson, Mark & Winkler, Baerbel & Painting, Rob & Rice, Ken. (2016). Consensus on Consensus: A Synthesis of Consensus Estimates on Human-Caused Global Warming. Environmental Research Letters. 11. 048002. 10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002.

4

Cianconi, P., Betrò, S., & Janiri, L. (2020). The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 490206.

5

Whitlock, J. Climate change anxiety in young people. Nat. Mental Health 1, 297–298 (2023).

6

Hanigan, I. C., Butler, C. D., Kokic, P. N., & Hutchinson, M. F. (2012). Suicide and drought in New South Wales, Australia, 1970–2007. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(35), 13950-13955.

7

Adedeji, Olufemi & Okocha, Reuben & Olatoye, Olufemi. (2014). Global Climate Change. Journal of Geoscience and Environment Protection. 02. 114-122. 10.4236/gep.2014.22016.

8

Anderson, C. A. (2001). Heat and Violence. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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