How Climate Change Can Affect Mental Health

By Beth Leipholtz 05/20/19

Experts discuss how "climate anxiety" affects those worried about the future as well as those who've experienced trauma through natural disasters.

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people protesting about climate change

As the global temperature rises due to climate change, there is increasing concern about how the impact of this will affect mental health. 

The 2018 National Climate Assessment says that extreme weather and rising sea levels can result in “mental health consequences and stress.” 

“The last two years, the conversation has shifted toward climate change,” said Reggie Ferreira, editor of the journal Traumatology and director of Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy, according to Rolling Stone. “We see disaster causing trauma, but climate change is intensifying the disaster. We need to focus on what’s intensifying these disasters and get people prepared.”

In fact, at the 2019 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, various sessions on climate change are planned. Experts say the impact on mental health comes about in two ways: growing anxiety when thinking about the future, as well as a growing number of traumatized natural disaster survivors. 

Most commonly coined “climate anxiety,” the concern about the future is also referred to as “climate grief” and “climate depression,” according to David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth

“While it may seem intuitive that those contemplating the end of the world find themselves despairing, especially when their calls of alarm have gone almost entirely unheeded, it is also a harrowing forecast of what is in store for the rest of the world, as the devastation of climate change slowly reveals itself,” Wallace-Wells writes.

Last year, a survey conducted by Yale found that almost 70% of Americans worry about climate change and 29% qualify themselves as “very worried,” which is an 8% increase from earlier that same year. 

Janet Lewis of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance says that climate anxiety differs from treating other forms of anxiety. 

“Most of the time when we’re treating anxiety, we’re treating people who have unrealistic levels of anxiety,” Lewis said, according to Rolling Stone. “We’re all in the same boat with this.” 

Lewis adds that when treating people with climate anxiety, it’s important to encourage them to grieve the loss of things such as ecosystems, as well as acknowledge that everyone is in the situation together. 

When it comes to trauma as a result of natural disaster, such as 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, experts say more programs need to be implemented in the future to aid in such situations. 

One reason is that in the wake of such disasters, there is often an increase in PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and violence. 

“The mental health system in the U.S. is broken and in times of disaster it’s even more on the back burner,” trauma psychologist Charles Figley tells Rolling Stone. “We’re much more concerned about bringing back infrastructure than looking at mental health aid. The human element is often forgotten.”

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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 www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.

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