Climate change isn’t just going to sink our cities, obscure our skylines and stars with pollution, melt glaciers and make our oceans more acidic. It will do all those things, to be clear. But it will also take a dramatic toll on the entire world’s well-being, including our mental health.
Examples of this are playing out in real time. Puerto Ricans rebuilding after Hurricane Maria are juggling the need for power and clean water with coping with the psychological trauma a storm can bring—all in the midst of ongoing political turmoil and a shortage of trained professionals to offer mental health support. And after a storm like Maria, many people face the immediate trauma of losing loved ones or a place to call home along with issues like anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
The reality is grim, but it’s a necessary one to face: as sea levels and temperatures rise, people—especially those who are already disadvantaged due to where they live, how much money they make or their status in society—will be vulnerable to both mental and physical health issues as a result.
Most of the world agrees that climate change is a massive problem. When I started writing this article, the only countries in the world that weren’t part of the Paris Agreement, which seeks to curb emissions and pull us back from the brink of climate catastrophe, were the U.S and war-torn Syria. Syria has since joined. And coverage of climate change has ramped up in tandem with the the climate talks in in Bonn, Germany, which began on November 7th and will wrap up on the 17th.
But many articles on climate change focus only on the ecological or physical dangers our changing world poses to us.
For instance, this TIME article by Patricia Espinosa, the secretary of UN Climate Change, and the editor-in-chief of The Lancet explores the links between extreme weather events and health, building off a recent report in The Lancet about how air pollution kills about 2.6 million people around the world each year. A piece in The Verge details just a spattering of ways climate change will affect human health, from heat stress to malnutrition and the spread of infectious diseases.
And yet despite the science, many people (including some politicians) have trouble grasping the severity and speed at which our world is changing. A few months ago, for example, David Wallace-Wells wrote about how climate change is far worse than people want to believe.
But, as any climate change expert will tell you, climate change isn’t a future problem—it’s a now problem. And while talking about how climate change is affecting our physical landscape and health is essential, at a moment when (most of) the world joins in efforts to try and curb climate change, it’s time we talk about what it’s already doing—and could do in the future—to our mental health.
When I started writing this article, the only countries in the world that weren’t part of the Paris Agreement, which seeks to curb emissions and pull us back from the brink of climate catastrophe, were the U.S and war-torn Syria. Syria has since joined.
That’s why we’ve reached out to researchers and academics to start this conversation as part of an ongoing series on climate change and mental health.
These experts look at climate change from a variety of angles that all tie into its mental health effects: policy creation, the complicated way existing social barriers like discrimination and poverty relate to climate change, the links between drought and suicide and how we should talk about climate change to people who are somehow still skeptical about its existence.
The positive spin? Most of the experts said that they manage to find inspiration in their work, and shared what they’re hopeful about for the future. Many stressed the importance of resilience, social connection and community as key methods to make our world habitable 10 years, or 100 years, from now.
The Immediate Mental Aftermath
Before you dive into their stories, here’s a primer on the links between climate change and our mental health.
Some of the ways that climate change impacts our health are obvious, like the grief that comes with losing a loved one or a home after an extreme weather event. But there are also surprising stressors like “ecoanxiety,” which is the feeling of loss, helplessness and frustration that arises when people feel like they can’t do anything about our impending climate catastrophe.
That term was defined in a comprehensive March 2017 report from the American Psychological Association, ecoAmerica and Climate for Health focusing on how our changing world will impact mental health both now and in the future. The report is worth reading in its entirety, but it highlights a few different ways that climate change, or extreme weather events made worse by climate change, can affect mental health.
First, there are the acute impacts, including trauma, post traumatic stress disorder and strains on social relationships. Chronic effects tend to happen more gradually, and include stress, aggression and depression. “Although the impacts of climate change are not always visible,” the authors write in the report, “they perpetuate a delayed destruction that, like the damage to climate, are incremental and can be just as damaging as acute climate impacts.”
Puerto Ricans will be repairing the damage from Hurricane Maria for years, but in the immediate aftermath, 48 people died, leaving the community of their family and friends grief-stricken, and there was an unprecedented shortage of food, water and power. Of course, basic needs such as food and water pose an immediate physical danger, but there’s also the stress that comes with trying to procure needed items during shortages. And then there are the mental health impacts that come from losing a loved one, a home or a pet, and first responders aren’t necessarily equipped to provide emotional support.
“Loss of place is not a trivial experience,” the APA report says. “Many people form a strong attachment to the place where they live, finding it to provide a sense of stability, security and personal identity.”
What’s also challenging is that our brains might not be able to keep up during times of natural disaster-induced tragedy: our ability to “process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate change,” the APA report found. This can make it harder to think clearly and rationally or brainstorm out-of-the-box solutions, often the very type of thinking we need during or after disasters.
The Long-Term Consequences
Then there are the lingering impacts. The APA report cites a study that found out of a sample of people living in places impacted by Hurricane Katrina, one in six people met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled in the period after the storm.
“When the physical home is damaged, it changes the dynamic of social relationships, often negatively.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder can also lead to other mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and impact people’s social and professional well-being, too.
This also impacts the community and people’s social ties, which are essential for building resilience after disaster, something many of the experts I interviewed spoke about. “When the physical home is damaged, it changes the dynamic of social relationships, often negatively. Domestic abuse, for example, including child abuse, often increases among families who have experienced disasters,” the report found.
Losing a place can also be a chronic stressor because of how long it can take to relocate and rebuild. Gradual, climate-induced changes to our world—like rising sea levels and sustained drought—will displace an estimated 200 million people by 2050, according to the report. (Relocation due to climate events is already happening, and some vulnerable communities have proactively, and preemptively, relocated, including the entire population of Choiseul, a township on Taro Island east of Papua New Guinea.)
Other gradual mental health impacts include stress and anxiety, which many people already live with. We all experience stress in our lives at one point or another, but “the accumulated effects of compound stress can tip a person from mentally healthy to mentally ill,” the report authors note, adding that “even uncertainty can be a source of stress and a risk factor for psychological distress.” Warmer weather, another effect of climate change, has also been linked to aggression and violence, and the report states that warmer weather can “overwhelm coping ability for people who are already psychologically fragile.”
People with existing mental and physical health challenges are uniquely vulnerable to many of the adverse outcomes climate change will bring. According to a recent WHO report, 300 million people live with depression, most of them women. Most experts agree that people already disadvantaged like those living with poverty, marginalized communities and women, will face the most intense impacts of climate change—they will likely be more adversely impacted by disasters than people who are able to afford relocation or therapy, for instance.
“It’s real; it’s us (i.e., human-caused); experts agree (that human-caused climate change is happening); it’s bad (for people, not just plants, penguins and polar bears); and it’s solvable (if we do what’s necessary, starting now).”
The (Very Abridged) Political Situation
The climate talks in Bonn represent a worldwide acknowledgement of the need to tackle this global issue. But from where I’m writing in the U.S., many people in power “don’t believe” climate change is real. But “the reality of the situation can be summed up in 10 words,” Dr. Edward Maibach director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, told me via email. “It’s real; it’s us (i.e., human-caused); experts agree (that human-caused climate change is happening); it’s bad (for people, not just plants, penguins and polar bears); and it’s solvable (if we do what’s necessary, starting now).”
The Fourth National Climate Assessment—a White House-approved report—recently reported that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” though some in the U.S. government still doubt the role humans played in our warming world.
Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a climate change denier and has used the Bible as justification for allowing more industry representation ( from tobacco and oil companies, for example) to serve on governmental scientific boards. President Trump’s nominee for White House senior advisor for environmental policy questions the science of climate change and likens environmental activists to those hungry for power and control.
But the rest of the world is not fooled, and many within the U.S. are still fighting for change. At the climate talks in Bonn, Washington Governor Jay Inslee told an audience, “the next president of the United States is not going to be a climate denier,” Politico reports.
The People Leading the Charge for Change
Thinking about the ways that climate change impacts our world and health can make one (including this writer) want to crawl under a comforter and learn how to hibernate, but there are ways to make change on a local level. These interviews are meant to inspire and show that real people are tackling these problems in tangible ways. “Have we basically decided as a society, as a world, that this is okay, that this is all right?” Miraj Desai, an associate research scientist at the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health in the Yale School of Medicine, told me. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Read their interviews below.