How Climate Change Impacts Mental Health

mental health climate change
Climate change related disasters displace hundreds of thousands every year. Survivors bear psychological scars for years.

In 2012, scientists were at a loss to explain why only one fourth of U.S. citizens rated climate change as a top priority. A study, published in Nature, highlighted six psychological challenges around climate change that prevented one’s internal moral alarm from going off.

One was that climate change was an abstract concept, difficult to put to real human emotions and fears. Another was its long term horizon – the belief that climate change affects people either geographically distant from the United States or temporally (ie, its effects play out far in the future). The remaining factors sought out alternate ways of explaining in action – but it’s the first two that concern this article.

Climate change is no longer an abstract concept.

A 2012 study estimated that up to 400,000 people died each year as a consequence of changing weather patterns – the large bulk being due to starvation and communicable disease. By May 2015, heat waves had killed over 500 people in India that year (2016 followed up as an even hotter year). In Bangladesh, one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change, thousands of families have been evicted by floods. For them, life after a catastrophe is a destitute one – where families struggle for employment and shelter in the capital city of Dhaka, living with a constant fear of being evicted.

These are not abstract problems. Climate-affected catastrophe is a real trauma for hundreds of thousands every year. And this number is expected to go up.

While the socioeconomic dimensions of climate-induced catastrophe are studied, as is the humanitarian aspect, one side – that of the human psyche – is seldom discussed. What impact does climate change have on our mental health?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an increasingly common symptom. You can find it in Gulf War veterans, abused children and in cyclone survivors. The victims, in the case of the 1999 super-cyclone in Orissa, were mostly children – nearly half of whom were surveyed showed signs of PTSD. The cyclone had affected 15 million and killed 10,000. Thousands of villagers were marooned for weeks without aid.

Being witness to extreme weather events is not just a matter of surviving – but also of coping with the things you’ve seen. Survivors with PTSD often ‘relive‘ the experience through vivid flashbacks – and can actively avoid anything that brings back those associations.

Mental disorders can also be triggered or caused by calamity. In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami of 2004, between 30-50 percent of the affected population showed signs of anxiety, depression, phobic disorder, and adjustment disorder. In Sri Lanka, 50 percent had problems, with 5-10 percent needed treatment. In Jaffna, activists utilized religion and traditional mourning practices, through the use of local social organisations.

In the Andaman Islands of India, child tsunami victims were asked to draw the aftermath of the tsunami – in terms of what they had seen. Combined with group discussions, it’s a way for the most-affected to be identified and helped. The most common lingering symptom was dizziness, although many could not shake off the image of floating dead bodies – brought back by the sound of an airplane or helicopter (likely rescue aircraft, the sound of which would have been prominent during the aftermath).

Poor mental health can have extreme consequences. In India, suicide has become one of the biggest climate-change induced killers. In a study of the nearly 60,000 farmer suicides that took place in the last three decades, it was found that climate change was inexorably linked. Crops are highly sensitive to weather – even a one-degree difference can affect their yield. The study found that each degree of temperature hike was associated with up to 67 additional suicides. A five-degree spike was linked to 335 deaths.

Note that when climate scientists speak of limiting global warming to one or two degrees, this is worldwide – and on average. In parts of Northern India, temperatures can spike between two to four degrees above normal during a heatwave.

Across the world, a rise in temperatures has been linked to an increasing incidence of violent crimes. The explanations for this are varied – heat makes up ‘hot-headed’, drugs that treat schizophrenia may be less effective when the body overheats, heatstroke-triggered hallucinations, and so on.

When you consider the many ways climate change can impact humanity – from spreading disease, to malnutrition, migration and many, many causes of death – it’s only to be expected that tragedy accompanies mental trauma. Of late, psychologists have grown more aware of the mental health aspect of climate change. The American Association of Psychologists released a comprehensive report on the expected mental health impacts of climate change. Their recommendation is that we try to better comprehend what climate change can really cause.

Turning the discussion around climate change towards one of health can help ‘resonate across the political spectrum’. And there is a need for ‘practical solutions’ that encourage action and build emotional resiliency.

One study, by Dr. Helen Berry, even views the looming mental health apocalypse as an opportunity. This, not to benefit off of tragedy, but to use pre-emptive action as a chance to bring communities together – across the socioeconomic divide.

It’s no secret that climate change will affect the poor. A seminal study by Canadian sociologist, Alexander H. Leighton, demonstrated how a poor, socially-isolated community in rural Canada was turned around in a decade by simply building up their social capital. Berry explains that social capital has been linked to mental health, and how it is a measure of one’s social cohesion and sense of elevation within communities. In Leighton’s work, once the isolated community were reached out to and given opportunities to mingle with the larger community, they naturally found ways of blending in. Their lives improved.

Similarly, the problem of climate change is an opportunity for the haves to reach out to the have-nots. The inevitability of climate-change driven disaster is a wake-up call. Rather than prepare for the storm by fearing the unknown, we can find ourselves better prepared by standing together with those who will be most affected. The failure of humanity to work together to stop climate change need not be repeated by a failure to work together once it strikes.


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