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Among all the other reasons to be concerned about the changing climate, we need to recognise its impact on mental health. Climate change can impair psychological wellbeing in multiple ways. First, and most obvious, there are threats to mental health associated with extreme weather events. In the past six months alone, a number of places around the world have experienced unanticipated disasters, including floods, storms and wildfires. As the recent IPCC report made clear, these events are more likely because of anthropogenic climate change—and will continue to increase in the coming years. Most people are resilient in the face of such shocks, but decades of research show that such events are followed by a significant increase in rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other psychological syndromes. The losses, extreme emotions and disruption to economic and social support systems that accompany these events put a heavy burden on people’s ability to function.
A second impact of climate change can be identified in the phrase “global warming”: heat. Heat affects our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, often in negative ways. A rapidly growing body of research has linked higher temperatures with negative mental health outcomes, such as increases in suicide, psychiatric hospitalisations and the use of psychiatric services. Higher temperatures are also associated with increased aggression and with a more negative emotional state in general.
Read more on the Forum Network: The Growing Mental Health Crisis in the Wake of COVID-19, by Husseini Manji, Global Head, Science for Minds, Johnson & Johnson
A third impact has received a lot of attention in recent months: climate anxiety. The mere awareness of climate change can be a source of stress as people contemplate the loss of things that they value. A 2021 Pew Research survey in 17 countries around the world showed that 72% of respondents were concerned that climate change would harm them personally. Among young people the fears tend to be even higher; a recent international study of 10,000 young people found a majority of them endorsing statements such as “People have failed”, “The future is frightening” and “Humanity is doomed”. Climate anxiety on its own should not be considered a mental illness, but rather a rational response to a known threat. However, it can be a source of stress, and research suggests that at high levels it can impair people’s ability to sleep, work or enjoy themselves. At that level it is a mental health concern.
Finally, climate change can also impair mental health indirectly, through things such as its impact on job loss, displacement and food insecurity.
Read more on the Forum Network: Addressing the hidden pandemic: The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on mental health, by Anthony Gooch & Francesca Colombo, Director, OECD Forum, & Head, Health Division, Directorate for Employment, Labour & Social Affairs, OECD
It is important to recognise that vulnerability to climate change is not equally distributed. Geographic differences mean that some people are threatened by sea-level rise and others by melting glaciers; physical differences means that some, such as children, the elderly and those with some pre-existing conditions, are more affected by heat than others. Economic and social disparities also influence people’s ability to protect themselves from the impact of climate change and to recover from disaster.
Mental health is often underemphasised compared to physical health, perhaps because people wrongly consider it to be an attribute of individuals rather than in part a response to social conditions. But, in addition to being an important goal in its own right, mental health is causally associated with physical health and economic productivity. Societies need to protect the mental health of their citizens.
Read more on the Forum Network: How Inequalities are Driving a Global Youth Mental Health Crisis, by James Da Costa, Y7 Delegate, United Kingdom
So what can we do to protect mental health in the face of climate change? Of course, we should try to reduce the amount of climate change—the degree of warming—that actually occurs. But we also need to consider how to provide the infrastructure that allows people to be psychologically resilient in the face of these hazards. More funding for mental health services, more attention to the disparities of experience among different community members, and more support for community networks would be a start. We will not all experience flooding or wildfires, or even droughts or displacement. But we will all experience the stress of seeing fundamental transformations in the global climate. A support system that gives people the opportunity to talk about their worries, and that teaches the emotional resources to cope with unwanted changes, will result in a society that is better able to handle the impacts of a changing climate.
Read the 2021 OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response to learn how OECD countries responded to worsening mental during the pandemic by scaling-up mental health services, and protecting jobs and incomes, thereby reducing mental distress for some.
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