The mental health effects of climate change

 
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September 5, 2019

The mental health impacts of climate change range from post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by events such as hurricanes and wildfires to broader existential worries about the future of the planet, according to a literature review forthcoming in Current Opinion in Psychology.

In fact, the review finds that globally, as many as half of the people who survive extreme weather events experience negative mental health outcomes. And the mental health implications of climate change can have social and political consequences, too.

“A lot of the work in climate change, in terms of human impact, has been focused on both acknowledging that climate change exists and coping with the more acute forms of climate change at the present time, like Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas right now,” says lead author Lawrence A. Palinkas, a professor of social policy and health at the University of Southern California. “While responses to acute and immediate extreme weather events, like hurricanes, have been at the forefront, it’s also the longer-term impacts of climate change that are having a significant impact and need to be addressed as well.”

The review identifies recent research on the mental health impacts of climate change for three categories of climate-related events: acute events, long-term changes such as drought, and long-lasting, existentially threatening changes like rising sea levels and temperatures reaching uninhabitable levels. Here are some of the findings highlighted in the review:

  • Mental health effects linked to acute events, which also include heat waves, wildfires and floods, are anxiety, mood disorders, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, disrupted sleep,  suicide, suicidal ideation and grief.
  • These effects can last for months to years following the event.
  • “Residents of low and middle-income countries are especially vulnerable to these outcomes due to their increased exposure to extreme weather events, high levels of poverty, and lack of access to services,” the authors write.

Young children and adolescents tend to experience more severe mental health impacts and take longer to recover, Palinkas adds.

He notes that while research tends to capture people with clinically diagnosed mental health concerns, a much larger percentage of people have symptoms that require response or treatment but do not meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.

Considering long-term climate change, researchers have found that monthly temperature shifts from between 77 F and 86 F to greater than 86 F increased the probability of mental health difficulties by 0.5% in a randomly sampled group of nearly 2 million U.S. adults.

Several studies have linked increased temperatures to higher rates of aggression, criminal behavior and suicide. Heat stress is linked to declines in cognitive functioning due to dehydration.

Heat waves have been shown to exacerbate mental illnesses. Researchers indicate that people with dementia, schizophrenia and substance use disorders are particularly at risk during heat waves. That’s because they might have trouble regulating their body temperature as a side effect of certain psychiatric medications. Also, they might be prone to heat-related cognitive impairment.

Studies in Australia have linked prolonged droughts to psychological distress, anxiety, depression and increased rates of suicide in rural areas.

Multiple studies have found that rural farmers are especially vulnerable, possibly because of the impact droughts can have on their livelihood. “On the NBC Evening News, there was a piece about the suicide rate among farmers in the United States, which is double that of the rate of the average population,” Palinkas says. “A lot of it has to do with loss of income and the ability to sustain those farms. And while climate change is not the only reason that that is happening, it’s certainly becoming, increasingly, a major contributor to reduced agricultural productivity and loss of income.”

With respect to the existential threats posed by climate change, the review indicates that acknowledging the reality of climate change can lead to distress and anxiety about the future.

“The fact that we know there is such a thing as climate change, but we don’t know the degree to which it’s going to impact us personally, has actually generated increasing levels of anxiety, particularly in younger adults and children, adolescents,” Palinkas says. “They’re the ones who are confronted more by the prospects of long-term impact than their parents or grandparents are.”

Further, despair over the environment can exacerbate the processes of climate change. If, for example, individuals feel that it’s a hopeless cause, they might be less inclined to take action to reduce their environmental impacts.

Lessons for journalists

Palinkas says journalists might be able to take a few lessons from the realm of mental health when considering how to cover climate change and its numerous effects.

First, he urges journalists to draw attention to the mental health issues associated with climate change, because awareness is a critical first step in addressing them.

“You cannot promote health and prevent disease in [vulnerable] populations unless you address the mental health issues first, because, unless you do, they simply lack the psychological capacity to change behavior,” Palinkas says. “The same is true with climate change. Unless you address the mental health impacts associated with climate change, it’s hard to get people to work in a proactive manner to either mitigate or adapt to change in climate.”

He also recommends journalists take a page out of the therapist’s playbook when covering climate change, generally.

“I see a parallel between the challenges involved in communicating the risk of climate change to the broader public and the challenges involved in working with clients or patients who have mental health problems, using evidence-based forms of psychotherapy, like problem-solving treatment, for example,” Palinkas explains. “There, the approach is, something is depressing you: Step one is to define what that problem is. Step two is to identify what it is that you can and cannot do to address that problem.”

He continues, “It’s a very practical approach that is really designed to empower people who are experiencing depression or anxiety. And once you begin to do that, you essentially give them the tools to not only overcome their own feelings of depression, but to work in a more practical and positive manner.”

For journalists, this means thinking about the two steps in problem-solving treatment — and making sure both are included in their coverage. In other words, he says, journalists should explain how individuals can reduce their impact and adapt to a changing climate.

Palinkas suggests news coverage that sheds light on the mental health effects of climate change and presents solutions. For instance, he suggests highlighting efforts to eliminate stigma and help vulnerable populations, such as farmers during periods of drought access mental health care. When covering extreme weather events, journalists could highlight how first responders are being trained to deliver mental health interventions. First responders used a mental health risk triage system in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

“This is a way of developing capacity in very low resource settings to address the mental health needs subsequent to a major natural disaster,” Palinkas says.

 

Looking for more research? Check out our coverage of scholarship on the current and projected health risks of climate change and the impact of heat on worker productivity

 

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Citation: Palinkas, Lawrence A.; Wong, Marleen. "Global Climate Change and Mental Health," Current Opinion in Psychology, 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.06.023.