How Climate Change Impacts Mental Health

How Climate Change Impacts Mental Health

By Indiana Lee

Climate change can seem like a distant issue that doesn’t make much of a difference in your everyday life. For some, the only time it may really come to mind is when it’s brought to your attention by news headlines or a natural disaster hits. 

However, research shows that it could make more of an impact than you think, especially on your mental health. To buttress this point, the American Psychological Association has made “Climate-related despair” a mental health condition because it can trigger anxiety and intense amounts of stress. A Yale survey found that in the U.S., anxiety is rising over the climate with 62% of people saying they were “somewhat” worried about it. At this point, you may be asking yourself how climate change impacts your mental health. Keep reading to discover the many ways that it can. 

Increases stress and anxiety 

One of the effects of climate change on mental health is increased stress and anxiety. A specific group of people that may feel such effects of climate change are rural workers or farmers. While they may not be directly impacted, longer drought periods can mean they produce fewer crops every year. The Fourth National Climate Assessment predicts that in the coming decades, farmers can expect changes in crop and livestock viability which means they may have to rethink their choices when it comes to crops and animal breeds seeing as it’s often contingent on local conditions. 

Related Post: Climate Refugees: Climate Change Could Displace 150 Million People By 2050

Photo: Foto Murthy/Unsplash.

These changes can affect their income, result in lower socioeconomic status if it persists over time, and trigger stress and anxiety. Social workers in rural areas may be able to help with such mental health challenges that arise. However, they could find it challenging to connect with such farmers as they may have fears around being stigmatized.

It would help if stigmas around depression and mental health could be changed in rural communities. This could be done by creating greater awareness and getting the courageous people that have gotten help to encourage others. 

Negative effects on physical health 

In addition to the effects it has on mental health, climate change is also predicted to have an impact on people’s physical health. The prevalence of Co2 emissions is one of many climate change issues affecting health. For the first time in 800,000 years, the monthly average has exceeded 410 ppm which goes to show the rate at which carbon change is advancing.

There are many factors contributing to the rising amount of carbon dioxide in the air, such as animal agriculture, the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing and deforestation, cement production and even things such as engine idling which leads cars to produce more carbon dioxide.

Read more: Carbon Intensive Industries – The Industry Sectors That Emit The Most Carbon

Although carbon emissions don’t have a direct effect on your ability to breathe, they can still affect your health over time. Some specific effects include the increase in air pollution-related diseases like acute respiratory infections in children, lung diseases as well as leukemia.

We can also expect disease-carrying creatures like mosquitoes to become more prevalent. According to the World Health Organization: “The Aedes mosquito vector of dengue is also highly sensitive to climate conditions, and studies suggest that climate change is likely to continue to increase exposure to dengue.”

Too much carbon dioxide in the air could also affect health by leading to hunger in areas like southern Africa where they’re experiencing droughts and undernutrition as a result of decreasing crop yields. An example of crop decline is also happening in states like Indiana and Illinois where climate change is taking up to eight percent off of annual corn yields. For global context, annual food calories have declined in India by 0.8% annually while in Nepal, they’ve fallen by 2.2%. 

Drought in Orange, Australia. Photo: Jasper Wilde.

That said, when your physical health is affected, it can increase the risk of mental health issues especially if you already have a mental illness. In similar regard, when your mental health isn’t in a good place, your physical health can be impacted, too. 

Trauma from extreme weather 

Climate change can cause extreme weather events which can result in trauma for those who experience it. Children, in particular, are vulnerable to ongoing trauma-related symptoms after having to endure a natural disaster. Some causes of trauma include having to be separated from parents and having their routine disrupted. After climate-related disasters, there tends to be a higher need for mental health services, but accessibility and availability are challenges. 

Related Post: Philippines Ranks Third in Air Pollution Deaths. Here’s What Needs to Be Done…

Aside from children, other groups of people that are most affected by climate change are pregnant women, the elderly, chronically ill, and those who already suffer from mental illness. 

Greater feelings of grief 

Some people feel deeply connected to the world around them, so knowing that it’s declining as a result of climate change can cause grief. In the same way, you could be grieving a loved one, it’s possible to grieve the loss of quality life on earth. A term for these feelings is ecological grief, which can refer to a loss of anything you value in the global environment. If it’s something you’re struggling with, speaking to a loss and grief counselor could help. Instead of bottling it up inside, sharing your thoughts and feelings with a professional can assist as they can offer healthy coping mechanisms you may be able to try. 

There are things you could do on your own to strengthen your mental resistance so that your mind can withstand the environmental changes taking place. A good place to start would be to understand and accept that you can’t control everything and, instead, focus on what you can control. Engaging in mental exercises like meditation could help too, especially if you’re feeling worried, anxious and on edge a lot of the time. 

Read more: How Practising Meditation Improves Consciousness and Awareness of the Present Moment

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Worsens mental health 

Have you ever thought about how people who have to endure regular floods or extreme droughts cope with such experiences? Being exposed to such climate and weather-related disasters can trigger a string of mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Those that have existing mental health challenges are at an even higher risk as climate change threatens to worsen their condition. The American Psychiatric Association states that “people with mental health conditions are more likely to be affected by extreme weather events for several reasons. Psychiatric medications can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate heat and their awareness that their body temperature is rising, which is associated with injury and death.”  

This means that in the event of an extreme weather event like a heatwave, they would be extremely vulnerable. 

Physical health implications aside, those with existing mental illness tend to be more likely to live in poverty or to be homeless. People with such challenges can find adapting to climate change difficult. In the midst of a disaster, they may not have access to medication and the unique support needed which could have detrimental effects on their health. Perhaps you’re one of many that have noticed colder winters, especially in the U.S. Global warming is being blamed for freezing temperatures across the country, especially in North America. Colder weather, which can have deadly effects on the homeless during the winter.

A study found that deaths caused by hypothermia were thirteen-fold more frequently recorded among the homeless than among the general population. Likewise, homeless people are at risk during hot summers as they can suffer from heatstroke or dehydration. In 2018, 182 people in Phoenix died from heat-associated causes and some of the cases involved homeless people. The situation will likely worsen as the World Meteorologic Organization predicts that by the end of the century, average temperatures will rise by up to five degrees Celsius.

Climate change can affect both your physical and mental health. Whether you struggle with trauma because of a natural disaster or are having to adapt to the socio-economic impacts of droughts, it can have lasting effects. By taking steps towards making yourself mentally resilient, you should be able to maintain your health despite the effects of climate change. 

If you or someone you know needs help, make sure to seek professional advice. In the United States, the American Psychological Association created an in-depth 69-page guide on mental health and our changing climate. In Australia, the Australian Psychology Society also offers many resources.

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Feature image of Cyclone Idai, Mozambique, aftermath, 15-16 March 2019 Photo: Denis Onyodi: IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre.

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