Climate Change

Can Climate Change Affect Mental Health?

Have you heard of eco-anxiety? The term refers to the fear and worries many people experience thinking about climate-prompted change and/or natural disasters. The phrase reflects the tremendous potential impact that climate change may pose to the mental health of people worldwide.

Many researchers have written about the phenomenon, pointing out two separate but related ways that climate change may adversely affect mental health. The first way is through direct, first-hand exposure to the consequences of climate change, e.g. experiencing a disaster.

The second way is indirect exposure, for example learning about a tragedy through a news outlet, or by watching a disaster develop from a distance. Either way of experiencing a disaster can be stressful and scary and lead to feelings of anxiety.

Dr. Joshua Morganstein collaborated on the Mental Health and Well-Being section of the 2016 Climate and Health Assessment, a scientific evaluation of the possible health effects wrought by climate change. According to Morganstein, disasters affect each of us differently but exposure to disaster prompts a set of potential symptoms such as substance abuse, insomnia, blaming, irritability, and the loss of interest in once enjoyable activities.

Nonetheless, certain variables increase a person’s risk of vulnerability. For instance, increased risk of negative psychological effects of natural disasters occur in a lower socio-economic bracket as well as living in risk-prone areas which potentially have fewer available health care services following a disaster.

And, certain groups including children and those with pre-existing psychological conditions, may be increased risk of negative mental health outcomes from both direct and indirect exposure to disaster.

According to a report from the American Public Health Association, up to 54% of adults and approximately 45% of children experience some form of depression following a natural disaster. Most individuals will heal and recover from distressful reactions, but symptoms can actually get worse if they are not recognized and properly treated.

In such cases, chronic and significant mental health disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression can arise.

Along with severe climate change and natural disasters, extreme weather is also associated with negative psychological effects. Studies show that people are more likely to act aggressively, and increase levels of violent behavior when exposed to punishing degrees of extreme heat.

For example, research published in 2020 in the scientific journal Nature revealed a correlation between rising temperatures and an increase in suicide rate, especially among men. In addition, studies have shown a link between exposure to poor air quality and increased risk of schizophrenia, personality disorder, and anxiety.

Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind that these studies do not show cause and effect relationships and experts are still in the process of discovering how and why air pollution may contribute to these conditions.

It’s impossible not to hear, see or experience the effects of disaster either first or second hand. Experts have provided several tips on how we can manage exposure and keep negative mental health impacts to a minimum.

First, it’s important to recognize any sad, worrisome or anxious feelings you may have and understand that they are natural responses to severe climate change.

Second, be sure to reach out for help if you need it. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Next, strengthening the bonds you have with your community is a great way to proactively prepare for climate-change-induced disaster. You can do this by building relationships with local leaders and joining community groups that share your same interests. Data collected during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season in Florida revealed that the communities reporting the highest levels of what experts term community collective efficacy (community strength), experienced the lowest prevalence of mental distress after storms.

Joining relevant online communities can also help you to weather the storm, so to speak. For instance, there are a multitude of Facebook groups organized around the purpose of talking about climate-anxiety, eco-grief, eco-anxiety, and similar topics.

Lastly, taking concrete action can help you feel a measure of control over unplanned emergencies and could potentially hasten the healing process. One example of this is developing family and work emergency plans before disaster strikes. Planning ahead can also encompass practicing behaviors today which serve to limit possible climate change tomorrow.

For example, have you thought about working on behalf of the environment? If so, look into local or national opportunities for environmental activism, initiate a blog about climate change or simply resolve to leave the planet to future generations in better shape than it is today.

What will you do to make a difference? Create a backyard food forest? Raise your level of awareness about eco-anxiety? Or will you be the next Greta Thunberg? As the passionate teenager has shown the world, each of us has the power to use our voice to make a positive difference!

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