The Largely Unacknowledged Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health

by Ellen Broaddus

Eva and Robert Gifford (2016) assess the relationship between climate change and mental health, looking at the environmental causes, effects, and social factors, the individuals and communities that are most vulnerable, and possible solutions. This largely untouched field of climate change research traces many of today’s physical and mental diseases to the environmental uncertainty and fear-driven anger caused by both drastic and incremental weather pattern changes. The most ubiquitous link emphasized the increase in climate-connected psychological responses: citing floods and droughts accompanying “anxiety, shock, depression, sleep disruptions”, and heat waves being linked to increases in “homicide, suicide, and spousal abuse”. In addition to these short-term reactions, environmental insecurity has led to long-term consequences, especially in children. Recently there has been a rise of respiratory conditions and asthma as a result of air pollution, causing anxiety for children and their families. The link between natural disasters and prevalence of social withdrawal and PTSD has been shown to alter the stress responses of adolescents, putting them at “higher risk for later health challenges”.

Seniors and Americans of lower socioeconomic status are also disproportionately affected because they have fewer physical and economic resources available, making it difficult to develop effective coping mechanisms. Arguably most affected are those already struggling with mental illness. In addition to disasters exacerbating “preexisting limitations to access to mental health care”, weather changes increase the symptoms of “mood disorders, substance abuse, [and] reactive psychoses”, while medications used for treatment often “impair the body’s heat regulation ability” and lead to more trauma and hospitalizations.

While certain individuals are affected most, Gifford and Gifford stress that this is a universal issue. It is estimated that climate change will cause emotional distress in 200 million Americans, threatening increased social vulnerability, societal incoherence, inequality, anger, and distrust. This is seen on both a personal and diplomatic level, as politicians predict climate change to become the “primary cause of conflict globally”. Other effects are subtler, such as the decreased nutritional value of many foods due to increased CO2 levels. This magnifies the already monumental issue of malnutrition and leads to widespread fatigue and depression.

Despite the seemingly negative rhetoric, the authors suggest positive steps can be made using the media, education and health care systems, and increased research on the issue. They advocate distribution of positive and encouraging, yet consistent and accurate, information about climate change, as well as increased funding of mental health structures and research on coping mechanisms. Mostly, the authors express the need for individual and community empowerment and promoting trust and social collaboration.

 

Gifford, E; Gifford, R. 2016. The largely unacknowledged impact of climate change on mental health. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 72, 292-297. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00963402.2016.1216505

 

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