Climate Change

Studies Detail Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health

One of the concerns associated with climate change is the effects of rising global temperatures, pollution, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events on human health. Typically, this concern is related to people’s physical health; heavily polluted air can lead to respiratory illnesses, contaminated drinking water can contribute to all manner of illnesses, and extreme weather events can cause traumatic injury as well as dehydration and starvation resulting from damage to infrastructure. But another aspect of the health impacts of climate change is often overlooked, which is the psychological impact of understanding the global threat imposed by the phenomenon.

Climate change has been in the news with increasing frequency lately for a number of reasons. One reason is the increasing number of extreme weather events, some of which have been shown scientifically to have been worse as a result of climate change. Another reason is the work of activists, particularly young people such as Greta Thunberg, to raise awareness about the scope of the impacts of climate change, including the historic global protests on Friday. As I write this article, the U.N. is holding a climate summit to discuss the problem and potential solutions, where Thunberg is speaking. And in the United States, democratic presidential candidates are discussing the policies they’d implement to fight climate change, many of which call for unprecedented political change.

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A meta-analysis, which will be published in the April 2020 edition of Current Opinion in Psychology, takes a holistic approach of understanding the health impacts of climate change by reviewing research that has been conducted on the subject over the past several years. This study identifies three different forms of climate-related events and how they relate to mental health. These events are “acute events” such as hurricanes and wildfires; “subacute or long-term changes,” like droughts and heat stress; and “the existential threat of long-lasting changes, including higher temperatures, rising sea levels and a permanently altered and potentially uninhabitable physical environment.” The various ways in which these factors impact mental health is broad, and the authors specifically point to the development of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Children and poor people are particularly vulnerable, as these are populations most directly threatened by the effects of climate change.

For psychologists, eco-anxiety is a natural and reasonable reaction to the science of climate change, and the best response to eco-anxiety is to take action.

The term “eco-anxiety” has been introduced to describe the sense of being overwhelmed by the nature of climate change as an existential threat, and has been identified as an area of concern among psychologists. The phenomenon impacts even people who do not have a history of mental illness, and is characterized by “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” according to a 2017 report produced by the American Psychological Association. Sufferers of eco-anxiety, a condition which is thought to be rapidly growing among the global population, worry about the future of themselves and their children, and experience feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration owing in part to their conceptualization of themselves in relation to the global environment. According to psychologist Molly S. Castello, sufferers of eco-anxiety use denial to distance themselves from their existential concerns, but that denial only serves as a distraction from their anxiety, worsening the condition in the long term.

Several therapies have been proposed to treat eco-anxiety. Both cognitive behavioral therapy and medication have been shown to be useful treatments for the depression and anxiety that can result from environmental concerns, but psychologists who specialize in environmental concern recommend additional steps. These steps involve changing your lifestyle to reassert control over your feelings and instilling yourself with the knowledge that you are not remaining complacent in the fact of climate change. Duncan Greere, who edited a report detailing solutions to the climate crisis, recommends that individuals “make climate change a factor in the decisions you make around what you eat, how you travel, and what you buy,” “talk about climate change with your friends, family and colleagues, and “demand that politicians and companies make it easier and cheaper to do the right thing for the climate.” For psychologists, eco-anxiety is a natural and reasonable reaction to the science of climate change, and the best response to eco-anxiety is to take action.