Climate on the brain: climate breakdown and mental health
The consequences of climate breakdown on our mental health are increasingly being documented. From extreme weather to existential fear, we can all be affected.
With rising temperatures and ever-increasing extreme weather events caused by climate breakdown, the body of evidence on how this affects us individually is growing. The impact on our mental health is one area that is gaining attention.
There are several ways in which our mental health is affected, from short-term direct exposure to the extreme weather conditions, to longer term consequences of higher temperatures. The despair and hopelessness that the enormity of the problem makes many of us feel also takes its toll.
It will become more important to prepare for impacts on our mental health, and we will increasingly need the benefits that the natural world, the very thing that climate breakdown threatens, gives us.
Anyone who has ever experienced high temperatures will know that our mood and actions can change as a result. But a recent study has revealed that it can even cause more deaths. In the United States, a rise in average temperatures of between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius could result in up to 2,100 additional deaths from injuries every year. Most of these deaths would be among young men, between 15 and 34 years of age.
The scientists classified additional deaths which occur at times of unusually high temperatures as either unintentional or intentional. The biggest effects were on unintentional deaths from drowning and transport accidents.
Dr Robbie Parks from Imperial College London lead the study: “Drownings are plausibly linked with anomalously warm temperatures because swimming is more likely in periods of warm weather. Transport accidents are also linked because driving performance deteriorates at higher temperatures, due to decreased visual acuity as well as increased alcohol consumption.”
Intentional deaths caused by assaults and suicide were reported to increase, too. When spending more time outdoors in hot weather, people have more face-to-face interactions, which can lead to confrontation and arguments, they are more agitated in hot weather and combined with the increase in alcohol consumption, the frequency of assaults may rise. Suicides are thought to increase because higher temperatures are associated with higher levels of mental distress.
Those with pre-existing mental health difficulties are especially vulnerable to heat. Both dehydration and the suppression of thyroid hormones result in cognitive impairment and low mood, and they may have poorer body temperature control due to medication. Those with dementia, schizophrenia and substance use disorder experience higher rates of hospitalisation and mortality during heat waves. Studies primarily from Australia report that prolonged droughts due to climate change can lead to more psychosocial distress, generalised anxiety, depression and increased incidences of suicides amongst older people in rural areas.
Other extreme weather events such as floods, wildfires and intense storms lasting just days can harm our mental health for months or even years after the event. Between 25 and 50 percent of people exposed to these events will suffer.
Dr. Joshua Morganstein is the assistant chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University. He specialises in disaster mental health and explains: “Common adverse psychological and behavioural responses include distress reactions (insomnia, irritability, decreased perceptions of safety) and health risk behaviours (increased use of alcohol and tobacco to manage negative emotions, work-life imbalances, and social isolation that may decrease access to important social and healthcare resources).
“Over time, some people will develop psychological disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder, and various forms of anxiety. In addition, grief is a near universal phenomena after extreme climate-related disasters.”
One example is Hurricane Katrina. Following this disaster, 20 to 35 percent of survivors experienced some form of mental health issue, with over 30 percent suffering from anxiety-mood disorders and nearly 50 percent of marginalised community members in New Orleans showing signs of PTSD. Following flooding in England and Wales, psychological impacts are more commonly reported than physical effects.
Yet people do not have to live through such events to suffer poor mental health. In the long-term, perhaps the greatest threat is the existential one - for now it is certainly the way most of us experience climate breakdown, as a threat to our very way of life. Eco-anxiety is the worry about present or future environmental disasters or climate crises. But, as Linda Buzzell, a psychotherapist who specialises in ecopsychology and ecotherapy, says, somehow this term seems too tame.
Dr Buzzell said: “If our house were on fire (as our earthly home certainly is), would we label our emotions Fire-Anxiety?” She prefers the term eco-fear and believes it will rise. “If environmental disasters increase (as science tells us they will), then eco-fear will increase. Our home is on fire; it would be impossible for us to be less afraid as the fire spreads.”
Many people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration as they are bombarded by images of environmental disasters and due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping it.
Dr Buzzell continues: “We may repress the worries about what's happening as we go about our daily lives, but there's an internal subtle or overt feeling of fear that keeps growing as news of fresh calamities and worsening statistics spreads. One of the reasons Greta Thunberg's message has resonated so widely for so many people around the planet is that she speaks aloud the eco-fears and angers most of us repress.”
Despair can even exacerbate the impacts of climate breakdown. If people feel that it’s a hopeless cause, they may feel less inclined to try to do something about it. But this would be disastrous, especially given how beneficial the natural world is to our mental health. A recent study from Australia has calculated that improvements in mental health from time spent outdoors is worth approximately £4.5 trillion per year.
They found a direct link between visits to protected areas and an individual’s mental health, with benefits including improved attention, cognition, sleep and recovery from stress. The economic costs of poor mental health includes treatment, care and reduced productivity at work. With protected areas under increasing pressure not only from climate breakdown, but political and economic factors too, perhaps monetising their benefits will encourage politicians and people to value them more.
Spending more time in nature is clearly beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing and is one way of protecting ourselves from climate breakdown. And all we need to do is take 2 hours out of our week to be in green spaces to feel the health and psychological benefits, a study from the University of Exeter has shown.
What else can we do? One important first step is to acknowledge that anxiety or fear is a perfectly normal response. Many of us are feeling this way, so let’s talk about it and treat it as a problem to be solved together. Individually, connecting with loved ones, therapists or mental health care providers to talk about our feelings is critical. If you are at risk of extreme weather events, preparation can help.
Evacuation early ahead of a disaster reduces the risk of stress and anxiety - the further away from the disaster you can get, the less severe the mental health impacts are likely to be. If this is not possible, prepare an emergency plan with supplies such as food and water, but also books or games that can help reduce stress. Become aware of what help is available to you. Mental health is often stigmatised, but treatment can be effective and help should always be sought if you or someone you know is suffering from a persistent mental health condition. Finally, we need to take care of each other. Communities with the highest community strength are the ones that see lower rates of mental health after a disaster.
As Dr Parks says: “During warmer temperatures, someone who appears to be ok (at least physically) may not actually be. They may be suffering on the inside. So, look out for and check in on each other, build a sense of community wherever you are! It could make a difference to someone’s health and wellbeing, both inside and out.”