Months after the catastrophic Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, a suicide prevention hotline near the capital receives up to 600 calls daily from distressed residents coping with the stresses of a worsening economic depression and revealing well thought-out suicide plans. With floods and famine coupled with a lack of basic goods and electricity already ravaging the island and thousands of families, the psychological toll of death, migration, separation and loss weighs heavily on the population.
With climate prediction models and warnings flooding our newsfeeds, the 70% of Americans who believe in climate change know that we face in the coming decades a series of extreme weather patterns, drought, a loss of biodiversity, an onslaught of disease and more, but too often overlooked in the dialogue: the mental health consequences inflicted by a rapidly changing planet.
Psychologist and researcher Carl F. Weems quantifies this concerning trend, writing that “25 and 50 percent of all people exposed to an extreme weather disaster may have some adverse mental health effects,” as physical devastation can induce trauma, anxiety and depression.
While disasters can spell chaos both physically and mentally, more insidious forms of climate change can take just as great a toll. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention finds that suicide peaks in early summer and Nature Climate Change predicts “that roughly 14,000 people—and as many as 26,000—could die by suicide in the United States by 2050 if humanity does not reduce its emissions of greenhouse-gas pollution.” As national and global temperatures continue to rise, so too will the body count if we fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for its worst effects.
Carbon taxes and green innovation pose as viable macro solutions, but on an individual level, a simple change of mind can both mitigate and prevent these crises and their consequences. Joy Osofsky, a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and public health at Louisiana State University, advises planning escape routes and assembling emergency kits to not only alleviate panic and trauma in the case of disaster but also to mentally prepare ourselves for a more uncertain and dangerous world.
But as climate change rears its ugly head we must overcome mental barriers to overcome the underlying challenge: carbon emissions. No longer can we be passive bystanders to the changing elements because our day-to-day actions render us culpable. By analyzing our carbon footprint and making adjustments in our daily lives, whether that be taking public transit, flying less, consuming less meat, or buying energy efficient appliances, we can begin to do our part to preventing more catastrophe and trauma. Our physical and mental health and our entire globe depend on it.