Heat Waves, Wildfires and Floods: How Climate Change Affects Mental Health: Maps

A heat wave suffocates much of the western region, including Los Angeles. Worrying weather patterns like this can contribute to climate stress.

Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A heat wave suffocates much of the western region, including Los Angeles. Worrying weather patterns like this can contribute to climate stress.

Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Climate change has brought more intense wildfires, heat waves, floods and hurricanes, extended allergy seasons and inflicted other forms of tangible damage. But an often-overlooked consequence—deserving urgent attention and creative problem-solving—is worsening mental health.

The COVID pandemic has been a time of tremendous suffering. According to the World Health Organization, the prevalence of depression and anxiety increased by 25% worldwide in the first year of the pandemic. We are bruised and vulnerable, struggling to recover after two and a half tumultuous years.

But daily reminders of global warming, including extreme heat, water rationing and parched landscapes, threaten to make the situation worse, and we have no medicine or vaccines to save us.

Climate change has direct effects on mood

The heat itself is associated with mental illness. Mood disorders, anxiety and aggressive behavior have been linked to higher temperatures. A 2019 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that violent crime in Los Angeles increased 5.7% on days with temperatures above 85 F compared to cooler days.

The authors of a 2018 study published in the journal Nature predicted that warmer temperatures could lead to up to 40,000 additional suicides in the United States and Mexico by 2050.

“There is a direct link, and mental health and psychosocial well-being will decline as pressures from climate change increase,” said Kerry Wangen, a psychiatrist in private practice in Southern California.

People facing climate-related natural disasters often struggle with mental health issues. Hurricanes and wildfires cause short-term death and property destruction. But they also contribute to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.

Droughts can disrupt food and water supplies and lead to loss of livelihoods, which can plunge entire families and communities into poverty, a risk factor for mental illness. According to a Washington Post analysis, more than 40% of Americans live in a county that experienced an extreme weather event in 2021.

Climate change is also displacing people as parts of the globe become uninhabitable due to sea level rise, drought and other weather events. The result is more conflict and stress, which increases the risk of mental health problems.

Struggling with overwhelming fears

The existential fear of climate change is a more pervasive concern, even if it is more subtle and less debilitating than mental illnesses triggered by acute events. The fear of global warming leaves many of us feeling hopeless and helpless, dreading what is to come and feeling that it is inevitable.

“Although I’ve never had a patient present primarily for climate-related anxiety, it’s common to find that it’s there alongside other social and societal fears,” said Daniel Hochman, a psychiatrist based in Austin.

A 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that 67% of Americans are somewhat or extremely worried about the effects of climate change, and 55% are worried about its impact on their mental health.

According to Hochman, climate anxiety — also called “climate distress,” “climate grief” or “eco-anxiety” — can manifest as dysthymia, in which people feel sad about the state of the world and contribute to the anxiety disorder. generalized. major depressive disorder, panic disorder and insomnia.

For children and young adults, aware that they have the most to lose, the climate crisis is a common source of distress. In a global survey, published in The Lancet in December, almost 60% of 16-25 year olds surveyed said they were “very” or “extremely” concerned about climate change. A further 25% admitted to feeling “moderately” worried. More than 45% said climate change had a negative impact on their daily lives.

What can you do about it

During this summer of record heat, efforts to combat climate change have had failures and triumphs. On June 30, the United States Supreme Court undermined the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions. Last week, however, Congress passed legislation that will provide nearly $400 billion in tax credits for clean energy projects aimed at slowing global warming.

As we strive to deal with the palpable effects of climate change, we would do well to follow WHO recommendations to include mental health and psychosocial support. We also need to increase funding for mental health and climate change mitigation.

Bob Doppelt, coordinator of the International Transformational Resilience Coalition and author of the forthcoming book Preventing and Healing Climate Trauma: A Guide to Building Resilience and Hope in Communitieslaments the inadequacies of our “crisis and disease-focused” mental health, social services and disaster response systems.

To address the “climate mega-emergency,” he calls for a public health approach to preventing and healing trauma and is working on federal legislation to support community mental health and resilience.

For those, like me, who often look at the weather forecast with a sense of doom, Wangen recommends channeling our worry into positive change. Here are some ideas:

1) Get involved locally

“Find ways to do something, no matter how small, to have an impact locally and/or on a larger scale,” Wangen said. Increase stress-reduction practices, such as meditation and prayer, and focus “on the present to keep perspective in the here and now where change can be made and life can be lived.”

2) Focus on small signs of progress

Doppelt encourages people to “engage with an existing neighborhood or community coalition or join with friends and colleagues to form a new one that builds mental wellness capacity for the whole population. and transformational resilience in the face of accumulating adversities”. Small signs of progress, he said, help create a sense of hope.

3) Join the conversation

Other innovative strategies to combat personal eco-anxiety include attending a climate cafe, which encourages climate conversations and political engagement. The Good Grievance Network is another option that seeks to build resilience and encourage meaningful action.

4) Keep things in perspective

Hochman also reminds us to take a step back. Compared to 30 years ago, extreme poverty and famine are less, he points out. Before the pandemic, life expectancy was at an all-time high. Energy and drinking water are more accessible.

“Despite climate change, this is by far the safest and best time to live,” he said.

This story was produced by Public Health Watch.

Lisa Doggett, an Austin physician and senior medical director for HGS AxisPoint Health, is a columnist for Public health monitoring, a non-profit investigative news organization. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HGS AxisPoint Health or Public Health Watch.

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