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The mental toll of climate change

PHOTO/MADISON INOUYE/PEXELS

By SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

newshub@eyewitness.africa

Researchers are more quickly acknowledging the many ways in which the global climate crisis is affecting our mental health.

A growing body of research links the impacts of climate change to adverse mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse. But individuals and communities can take steps to bolster their emotional resilience to climate-related stressors, researchers have suggested.

Our physical health can suffer in many ways from the effects of climate change. The most obvious are cases of mortality. In July 2018, an unprecedented heat wave in Japan killed more than a thousand people; researchers later showed that the event could not have happened without climate change [Imada et al., 2019].

And a myriad of nonlethal health issues is apt to worsen because of climate change. For example, respiratory problems have been linked to wildfires, which are increasing in severity and prevalence with climate change, a report concluded [United Nations Environment Programme2022].

But beyond the physical maladies brought on or exacerbated by climate change, there’s the potential for a host of mental health issues, said Christie Manning, an environmental psychologist at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn.

It makes sense that climate change would affect how we feel, said Manning, a coauthor of the “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate” report published by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and EcoAmerica. Its deleterious effects seem to dominate the news, and the issue often seems so intractable and beyond our control, she said. “The individual things we can do feel so incommensurate with the problem.”

The Trauma of Sudden-Onset Events

When it comes to evaluating how our mental functioning is affected by climate change, Manning and other mental health experts have tended to find consistent patterns. “It’s pretty standard these days to think about the mental health impacts in three broad categories,” said Manning.

The first category is brought on by acute events such as devastating storms, wildfires, and floods. Sudden-onset events can cause trauma, which often manifests as PTSD and has been linked to anxiety, major depressive disorder, and substance abuse, said Manning. In 2006, researchers surveyed more than 400 community college students living in the region around New Orleans.

All of the study participants had been affected by Hurricane Katrina the year prior, and more than half of them lived in the Ninth Ward, an area that suffered some of the worst destruction from the storm. The researchers found that nearly half met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD [Lowe et al., 2013].

After a slew of destructive wildfires plagued California in October 2017, residents living in affected counties reported feelings of trauma and guilt, in addition to anxiety, depression, and solastalgia (defined as melancholia related to a home environment that has been altered) according to a survey of more than 2,200 households.

Family preparing for food in a kitchen. PHOTO/PEXELS

And that distress persisted over time, the research team found; survey participants reported similar feelings both immediately after the fires and several months later.

“We need people to understand that this is not ‘over’ for us,” one respondent wrote. The researchers, led by Mitchell Snyder at the University of California, Davis, reported their results at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2022.

Natural disasters, including floods and hurricanes, have also been linked to increased suicide rates. Jennifer Horney, an epidemiologist at the University of Delaware in Newark, and her colleagues showed that in U.S. counties that experienced a natural disaster, suicide rates increased by 23% in the first 3 years after the disaster compared with the 3 years preceding the disaster [Horney, 2020]. The team reported its results in 2020 in the journal Crisis.

As the climate continues to change, the frequency and intensity of acute events such as wildfires and hurricanes are predicted to increase. Compound disasters—multiple destructive events, such as a mudslide following a fire—are also more likely with climate change, recent research has shown. “Climate change is growing in its physical manifestations,” said Manning. And that means that more people will be exposed to potentially traumatic events, she said. “It’s getting harder and harder not to experience climate change.”

Chronic Conditions

Events that evolve more slowly—and are almost chronic in nature—are responsible for the second category of impacts. Gradual shifts in our environment linked to climate change include prolonged droughts, desertification, and persistent heat waves.

Changes in temperature and weather patterns can trigger a sense of uncertainty, said Manning. “It makes people question what’s happening.” Particularly for people who live close to the land—whose identities, cultures, or livelihoods depend on environmental predictability—that uncertainty can escalate to feelings of hopelessness and despair, sometimes with tragic results.

Azar Abadi, a climate epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her colleagues recently studied the association between drought exposure and risk of suicide in the United States. They found that drought conditions, as estimated using 2000–2018 data from NOAA’s Evaporative Demand Drought Index, were correlated with higher rates of firearm suicide, particularly among nonurban populations.

“We found that rural communities are more susceptible,” said Abadi, who shared her team’s findings at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2022. These findings are particularly concerning, said Abadi, because some groups of rural dwellers are already overrepresented in suicide cases compared with the general population.

Researchers have also predicted that the suicide rate in the United States will increase overall as temperatures rise. A team led by Anna Belova, an economist at the consulting firm ICF, considered different global climate models and scenarios corresponding to 1°C–6°C of warming. They showed that up to roughly 1,600 additional suicides could occur each year because of climate change [Belova et al., 2022]. The researchers reported their results in GeoHealth.

Suicide is a tragic manifestation of mental anguish, and it’s important to understand its causes, said Abadi. However, she noted, climate change and mental health are controversial issues, and it can be difficult to engage people in those discussions.

“When these two topics are combined, it’s not an easy conversation.” But it’s critical to acknowledge mental distress, said Abadi. “When we talk about well-being, it’s a combination of physical health and mental health.”

Read the full story as reported by Eos.

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