Climate Change and Mental Health
According to a recent study, 48% of Americans believe climate change is already
impacting our mental health. Unfortunately, they are not wrong. The threat of climate change can have both a direct and indirect effect on people’s mental wellbeing. Climate change can have a direct physiological effect on one’s health if one is personally exposed to repercussions of the environmental crisis, such as living through a natural disaster. One’s mental health can also be affected by climate change through indirect exposure, such as developing a mental disorder while following discouraging environmental news.
Direct climate-related impacts on mental health are most often caused by rising global temperatures and increasing rates of natural disasters. Hotter weather has been clearly linked to aggressive behavior and violent suicides. A 1°C increase of 5- year global warming associates with a 2% increase in the prevalence of mental health issues. In America alone, if a month is 1°C warmer than usual, the suicide rate will increase by 0.7%. Therefore, if global warming continues to be unaddressed, the United States could see an upwards of 40,000 suicide deaths by 2050. The impact of climate disasters is just as concerning, with 25-50% of people who have experienced a natural disaster at risk of developing adverse mental health effects. Victims of these life threatening situations are at an extreme risk of suffering from PTSD, while suicide and experiencing suicidal thoughts in affected communities can nearly double.
The most common indirect impact climate change can have on mental health is eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety or a “chronic fear of environmental doom,” is more and more prevalent in today's younger generation. It presents itself in subclinical depressive emotions, restlessness, anxiety, and guilt. A large reason behind eco-anxiety is the knowing that danger is coming, but not having the resources, education, or plan to combat it. News reports, social media posts, and articles can all contribute to this “human-caused” risk of climate change on mental health. Today, 59% of Americans feel “hopeless” when it comes to the climate crisis. This number is likely to increase; anxieties will only worsen as climate change’s effects become more apparent and concrete.
The impacts of climate change on mental health are not isolated but interact with other social and environmental stressors. As we have seen many times before, climate change and its consequences can disproportionately affect certain populations. Vulnerable groups of people include low income communities, communities of color, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, children and pregnant women, the elderly, disabled people, and persons with pre-existing mental health conditions. In order to help these people most at risk, immediate steps must be taken to combat climate change. It is clear that climate change not only serves as a threat to our environment but also to our own health and wellbeing as a society. Environmental policies must be passed, and every person must be devoted to and educated on how to save our planet. Protecting our planet means protecting our people. Unfortunately, some consequences of climate change are irreversible. Therefore, we must put adequate healthcare and relief systems in place to not only treat but also target mental health issues that are known to be exacerbated by the climate crisis.