Mental health: the unseen impacts of climate change

A woman sitting on a brick next to a pile of rubble
(c) Phototalk

Sara Moubarak, former student on the Grantham Institute and Imperial College Business School MSc in Climate Change Management and Finance, considers the complex links between climate change and mental health.

I was sitting in class one day when, suddenly, we heard a loud bang and the windows started shaking. In a matter of seconds, my friend was hiding under the table, then begging us to let her out of the building. We found out later it was only a truck tyre exploding, but my friend, a 2010 Haiti earthquake survivor had been truly terrified. That day, I truly understood Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

When thinking about extreme weather events, it is common to  picture the vast physical damage and destruction they generate. Rightly so, considering that the tsunami that hit South East Asia in 2010 claimed the lives of 228 000 people and incurred an estimated $10bn of economic damage. Behind these statistics lies a human life and personal suffering. Yet the lesser-known long-lasting impacts on the mental health of survivors are rarely mentioned.

Considering mental health in the context of climate change is difficult. For one, detecting and predicting the impacts of climate change is complicated. Future impacts, which depend on the magnitude of change as well as the level of response to them, vary from being insignificant to catastrophic. Measuring mental health is also complex. The symptoms are sometimes hard to identify, despite persisting for years, and have a wide variety of different manifestations.

However, it is necessary to better understand the relationship between the two to make sure doctors and policymakers can provide the necessary support.

From post to pre-traumatic stress

Let us consider floods as a proxy for climate change. Despite causing few immediate casualties in high income countries, a study has shown that of all direct flood victims in the UK between 2013 and 2014, 20.1% suffered depression, 28.3% anxiety and 36.2% were diagnosed with PTSD. In contrast with those living in  affected areas who were not directly flooded, only 6% suffered depression, and 8% were diagnosed with PTSD levels.

Young family being rescued by the fire service after the River Derwent burst it's banks in the village of Old Malton in North Yorkshire in northeast England.
The floods in Malton, Yorkshire, United Kingdom, November 2012 (c) SteveAllenPhoto

It is also important to note that, while PTSD is caused by distressing events, depression and anxiety can result from the expectation of extreme events happening in the future. Regrettably, such situations are increasingly common. Researchers at the University of Arizona recently surveyed 342 parents of young children. The results showed that the perception of the threat of climate change affected the respondents’ psychological state. In particular, those concerned for nature, plants and animals were found to have higher levels of stress and depression, despite not yet being directly affected by climate change.

Forced displacement and climate refugees

This only the tip of the iceberg: the impacts of climate change on mental health are far-reaching, and are likely to increase as the planet warms. On our current trajectory, temperatures are projected to increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, by which time 200 million people are projected to be displaced due to climate change.

Many people have a strong emotional attachment to where they live; climate-induced migration and displacement can lead to a feeling of severe loss, resignation and nostalgia, coupled with a lack of emotional support from social networks. This is particularly true for young people and adolescents, who often feel a bigger sense of helplessness and fatalism than adults, which may, in turn, hinder their development.

Identity and unemployment

Climate change, like any societal stress, will be likely to exacerbate pre-existing mental health vulnerabilities, and affect some groups more than others. In Canada, for example, Inuit elders are expressing deep concern about loss of identity for the younger generation: “We are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?” This has important social impacts too, and some Inuit people are now filling their newly ’empty’ time with drugs and alcohol.

This is a familiar story. Many regions face unemployment due to climate change, which can lead to decreased labour productivity, substance abuse and poverty – and has major mental health implications. This is increasingly prevalent in India where, according to a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, 60,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past three decades connected to the effects of droughts.

Where do we go now?

Climate change is not a problem just for future generations. For many, it is a tragedy unfolding right now, and the impacts on mental health are far-reaching. These impacts have not yet been properly considered, but that must change. Post-disaster management is not enough. It is time for high-level decision makers, health professionals, researchers and communities to start talking about climate change and mental health, and find ways to give people the support they need. So let’s focus on health … from head to toe.

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