This Will Help You Understand What Survivors of Natural Disasters are Going Through

A psychologist explains climate change and post-traumatic growth.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

This article is part of an ongoing series where experts talk about the link between climate change and mental health.

Susan Clayton literally wrote the handbook on environmental and conservation psychology. The professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster is the President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and an author of the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health and ecoAmerica report Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance that was released in March 2017.

If you’re wondering what conservation psychology is, Clayton told me via email that it doesn’t have a fixed definition but generally refers to psychologists who research ways to promote a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world. And this feeds into Clayton’s research, including on how our natural environment impacts our sense of self. Here, she talks about what a healthy relationship between humans and the natural world should look like, post-traumatic growth after climate change and how losing your home due to climate disasters affects you.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thrive Global: After reading the March 2017 Mental Health and Our Changing Climate report, I was struck by how profound the mental health impacts of losing a home or being displaced can be. Can you tell me more about how relocation impacts people?
Susan Clayton
: This is a big issue! The thing to recognize are all the functions that a home environment serves for us. It’s a place where we feel safe and secure, where we know our way around, where we have a base for our social connections, and where we have memories that help to define our personal identities. Relocating can put all of those at risk: people feel less safe and less in control; they lose many of their social connections (and research shows social connections are profoundly important to mental and physical health); their very identities seem less stable and reliable.

“The thing to recognize are all the functions that a home environment serves for us.”

TG: What does a healthy relationship between humans and nature look like in our changing world?
SC: I would emphasize two sides of this question: human behavior that respects and values nature and strives to avoid ecological harm, and experiences with the natural world that promote human health and wellbeing.

TG: What’s one issue around mental health and climate change that you feel is under-reported on or not discussed enough?
SC: There are many, but I would stress the impact on social relationships as not being much discussed.

TG: What are differences between short and long term mental health impacts of climate change?
SC: First, I would distinguish between short and long-term manifestations of climate change and short and long-term impacts on people. Sometimes lasting effects can result from single events, while we may be able to adapt over time to long-term changes. The important distinction we make in terms of understanding the impacts is to note that some will result from discrete events, like major storms, flooding, or wildfires, while others will result from gradual, ongoing changes in things like temperature level, patterns of precipitation, and rising seas.

TG: A huge aspect of the report was on building resilience, or post-traumatic growth, to recover from trauma. How does this work?
SC: Resilience and post-traumatic growth are not exactly the same thing, but both refer to the fact that negative psychological consequences of trauma are not inevitable. Fundamentally, resilience—or the ability to recover and maintain functioning after experiencing a negative event—is enhanced by a number of things, including preparation! So we really want to stress the importance for people and communities to understand the possible local and personal impacts of climate change, and make preparations such as being informed about how to cope in case of disaster, strengthening informational and social networks, perhaps building the physical infrastructure to minimize negative impacts (e.g., being prepared for flooding). Post-traumatic growth describes the experience some people report that trauma can actually have positive effects by increasing their sense of meaning, their personal ties, and their appreciation for what they have. Under the right circumstances, disaster can bring people together to address the shared purpose of recovery and adaptation.

“Under the right circumstances, disaster can bring people together to address the shared purpose of recovery and adaptation.”

TG: What sort of change is needed to help people understand how important and serious the link between climate change and mental health is?
SC: As a society, we need to talk about it more. We also need to put it in terms that feel personal to people. Talk about the possible impacts on them and on people like them.

TG: I’m curious on a personal level about how you tackle your work under a science-hostile administration and stay inspired to keep doing the important research and educating you do.
SC: It’s daunting. But ultimately, the feeling of community among those who are working to address this issue is stronger than ever, and that is a source of comfort and motivation. We realize we can’t rely on the government to address this issue so we have to use other channels like education and local action. Also, people who you don’t necessarily expect to hear from (business people, health leaders, religious leaders) are joining the effort, so it feels like there are more and more of us.

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