How Climate Change Affects Mental Health

By Beth Leipholtz 08/19/19

A psychologist-penned op-ed examines the possible mental health burdens that climate change is creating. 

students at climate change protest
ID 139591350 © Ben Gingell |

Residents of Greenland are experiencing mental health struggles in connection to climate change—and soon, they may not be the only ones. 

In Greenland, according to The Guardian, the increase in the overall temperature of the Earth is affecting the beauty of the land, which in turn is causing “ecological grief” of the country’s residents. 

A recent opinion piece in The Hill, written by psychologist and Yale University associate professor Joan Cook, explores how climate change could potentially affect mental health in other areas of the world as well. 

One such way, she says, is through the increase in natural disasters. 

“They can result in greater man-made disasters, thus exposing people directly to events that are considered traumatic,” Cook writes. “Exposure to events such as floods, hurricanes, forest fires and tornados can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as a host of other emotional difficulties, such as complicated grief, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse and even possible increased risk of suicide.”

In addition to the immediate effects of such disasters, Cook notes there are also longer lasting effects. 

“These events also bring loss, disruption and displacement,” Cook says. “And have thus reverberating, indirect effects, like unstable housing, lack of access to support services and unemployment.” 

It’s important to note, Cook writes, that such mental health concerns aren’t only affecting those who live in areas with fragile ecosystems. Specifically, she cites a survey of residents of a southeastern U.S. city. The survey found that residents reported more difficulty being connected and working as a unit when there was extreme heat or cold. 

Vulnerable Populations

Climate change also packs a bigger punch for residents of communities that are already at a disadvantage, Cook states. “Marginalized or vulnerable folks like children, older adults and those with physical and mental health disabilities, are particularly badly affected.”  

It isn’t only mental health that can be affected, Cook adds. Physical health may also be a factor, as it is predicted that climate change could lead to more instances of  “cardiovascular disease, some cancers, respiratory health and malnutrition.” 

Despite growing awareness of the effects of climate change, Cook believes solutions are complicated and that as a whole, the country needs to be ready to take on and treat the mental and physical effects of impending changes. 

“The World Health Organization believes that climate change is a defining issue for 21st century health systems,” Cook concludes. “The potential solutions are complex. Scientists, clinicians, public health professionals, governments and organizations will have to work together to tackle this problem before it’s too late. But, as a psychologist, what I know, is that we need to anticipate and be ready to manage and relieve the mental health burdens climate change will impose.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.