Is Climate Change Affecting Our Mental Health?

Climate change isn’t coming. It’s here. It’s happening. We’re in it. And by now, you’ve likely heard, read, or even experienced how climate change is impacting your environment, but have you considered how it’s impacting your mental wellbeing?

What exactly are the psychological impacts of climate change?

According to the Global Health Commission, climate change is the largest global threat of the 21st century. Therefore, to say this threat has no impact on our mental health would be naïve to say the least.

One of the most evident ways climate change can affect mental health is by exposing people to, and also preparing people for, traumatic experiences. With very real threats of flooding, forest fires, and crop depletion, the horrors of our environment, and the immediacy of what so many of us are seeing right in front of our eyes, can be shocking, terrifying, and harmful to our psyche.

Following his studies of the aftermath of the Fort McMurray, Alberta forest fires in 2016, Dr. Peter Silverstone explained to CBC News that the trauma someone can experience during the evacuation process, for example, can lead to long-term problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Studies by the American Public Health Association echo these same claims, stating that following a climate event, victims are at increased risk of diminished sense of self and/or social interaction, may have difficulty relating to others, and may lose a sense of place tied to their physical environment.

Statistics

  • 25-50% of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of adverse mental health effects. 
  • Victims of natural disasters are at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide.
  • Up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffer depression after a natural disaster.

Climate change can also affect mental health by impacting a person’s physical health. The American Psychology Association states that extreme heat increases both physical and mental health problems in people with mental illness, in part, because many psychoactive prescription medications impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature. 

Are People Aware Of These Effects?

It’s clear that some people are unaware or unconcerned about the impacts of climate change. However, those who are burdened with extensive knowledge about climate change can find it difficult to find hope, and they may feel overwhelmed by the anxiety their research has led them to feel.

For people who are feeling overwhelmed about the issue, psychologists say it is critical that they engage in healthy coping behaviours, including connecting with others who are making positive change in their community. It is also recommended that their loved ones monitor their behavioral changes, and that they seek help when needed, and regulate exposure to the media.

We also need to be wary of becoming desensitized to the extent of completely lacking empathy. Some have begun to feel detached when they view images or watch videos about climate change. Whether they believe climate change is real or not, individuals can feel overwhelmed with seeing bad news in the media, so that they become numb, feel immune, and grow to disassociate from the reality of what is happening all around them.  

These are the people who have arrived at, “Well, that will never happen here”, “I’ve never seen that, so it can’t be real”, or “That won’t happen in my generation, so I don’t care.”

The “ignorance is bliss” / “that only happens in movies’’ thing can run deep. So deep it’s scary.

The problem is, carrying on, hoping nothing bad will happen, is about as effective a strategy as relying on hope without action. 

If we continue on our current course without taking action, I would argue that the human race will continue to get sick alongside our planet, both mentally and physically, until we are unable to work, drive, shop, go outside, and exist. Life as we know it will deteriorate. Seems pretty bleak, but as you start digging into many of the facts, there’s no denying it. It’s downright bleak. 

Are These Mental Health Effects Being Covered In The Media?

Unfortunately, research on the connection between climate change and mental health has been slim, aside from a few buried articles and reports that don’t seem to make it to the evening news. 

However, people like Joseph Reser, PhD, a psychologist at Griffith University in Australia, and Susan Clayton, PhD, environmental psychologist and chair of the environmental studies program at the College of Wooster in Ohio, are taking charge and pushing for change.
In discussing their work on Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, Reser explained that while many climate change scientists discuss human dimensions of climate change, many of them are not psychologically informed – a huge gap in the current research. 

“Climate change is an ongoing threat, and the psychological implications are occurring here and now.” – Joseph Reser, PhD
Therefore, it is the responsibility of those of us, like the Origyn community, to use our platforms to push for and demand more research, awareness, activism, and action.

Is There Hope For The Future?

When I last sat down with with my 91 year old Grandfather, I mentioned that I was writing this article and asked him this very question. 

His answer: “Yes, because this next generation is smart and ready to demand the change they want to see in the world.”
And I’d agree that he’s right.
Meet just some of the young people demanding change across the globe:

Xiye Bastida, 17, speaks on how Indigenous communities are impacted by rising temperatures and environmental degradation.
Isra Hirsi, 16, is the co-executive director of the US Youth Climate Strike.
Jamie Margolin, 17, is the co-founder of the climate action organization Zero Hour.
Kevin J. Patel, 18, is the founder of the soon-to-launch One Up Action, a climate action organization created to help youth become leaders.
Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, 12, became an activist in Flint, Michigan concerning the water crisis.
Greta Thunberg, 16,  took the United Nations Climate Action Summit stage in New York to speak on the impact of climate change.


Thunberg’s viral words are direct and filled with emotion:
“You have stolen my childhood and my dreams with your empty words.”
“You’re failing us, but young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”
But while the youth listed above are are small sample of proof in the power our next generation holds, they are also a reminder that is not up to our children to carry this monumental, trauma-inducing burden alone. 

Coping Tools For Those Feeling Hopeless About Climate Change

How can we reinforce action rather than inactivity or feelings of helplessness? That’s the big question.
Here are some ways you can take action and build momentum in the other direction:

Buy with awareness.

The more we condition ourselves to be as aware of the environmental impact of the products we purchase as we are about their effect on our own health, gradually we will make significantly better choices for all involved.

Spend time outdoors.

It’s hard to quantify the value of taking time to appreciate the beauty surrounding us. Put the devices down, take a walk, sit on your front porch and look up at the sky… you’ll find that any act of acknowledging our captivating natural world will go a long way in staying centered and focused.

Learn about people inciting positive change.

There are lots of positive changes happening in the world. There are those media outlets that focus on the doom and gloom; the whole “If it bleeds it leads” mentality. Try not to get sucked into that. Make a concerted effort to follow threads about people making progress in solving the problems that face us. It’s more work, but the return is far greater.

Get involved with local programs and community events.

There’s a lot of people out there making significant positive changes, but most of the time we don’t hear about these efforts unless we go digging. Luckily, in this day and age, connecting with people has never been easier. Some Google searches, Facebook Group joins, Twitter hashtag clicks, or subReddit subscriptions and almost instantly we can network with others with whom we share common ground. Make an effort to connect with these people in whatever fashion your comfort level will allow. Honestly, it’s just a great thing to know that you aren’t dealing with these issues alone.

Nurture your news feeds.

This can take time, but it will be worth it. “Like” and “upvote” positive content in your social feeds, and do the opposite for the negative content. Limit the news feeds that focus on negative news, and instead cultivate a list of news outlets that focus on positive change. This is not to be confused with putting your head in the sand. There’s certainly enough bad news out there and it’s important to know what we’re up against. But the depressing news is going to be much easier to find. Too much bad news, and it’s overwhelming. If we keep focused on the “wins”, then it will ultimately shift our focus away from helplessness, and encourage a state of positive reinforcement.

Climate change isn’t coming. It’s here. It’s happening. We’re in it. But there is hope for our mental wellbeing and the health of our planet. There is a chance to turn this around if we continue the conversation and take action.

Leave a comment