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In the late hours of November 8, as the deep-red electoral map forecast who would take the White House, a forest ecologist and friend texted me in frustration about his work, “What’s the point?”
You see, his research involves tree mortality. Millions of trees are dying across U.S. forests from drought, disease, insects and wildfire, much of it exacerbated by the climate crisis. But on election night, my friend—and perhaps many others—found the thought of combating this devastating global crisis even more insurmountable as Donald Trump, a climate change denier, was elected president of the United States.
The world’s rising temperatures don’t just cause glaciers to melt, coral reefs to bleach and forests to burn, but can also tip a person from mentally healthy to mentally ill. A growing body of research shows that climate change is taking a significant toll on mental health, according to a new report from the American Psychological Association.
“I found this topic really interesting because this wasn’t something I was hearing people talk about and this wasn’t well acknowledged as an effect of climate change,” said Susan Clayton, the lead author of the report and professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
Co-authored by the D.C.-based environmental nonprofit ecoAmerica, the APA report is based on more than 250 relevant scientific studies. (The 69-page review was released March 29, the day after Trump issued executive orders rolling back Obama-era regulations designed to mitigate global warming.)
The report finds that “ecoanxiety”—the feeling of impending environmental doom—is happening on a global scale. And because of that, it is time to expand awareness of and action on climate change’s effect on mental health.
The manifestations of a warming planet can affect a person in various ways. “We know that warmer temperatures tend to be associated with aggression and conflict,” Clayton said. “We know that if people have to migrate and have to leave their home, it’s a specific risk factor for mental health.”
Sudden effects, such as extreme storms, heat waves and floods, can be especially traumatizing. The report cites research on Hurricane Katrina survivors, whose rates of suicide and incidence of suicidal thoughts have doubled. One in six met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and 49 percent of people living in an affected area developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.
“When the place you call home is burned down, blown away, dried up or flooded; when you lose your possessions or your pets, your livelihood, your community; and see injuries, illness and death, the mix of fear, anger, sorrow and trauma can easily send a person to the breaking point,” psychiatrist and environmental advocate Lise van Susteren said in March at a climate and health presentation in Atlanta.
Van Susteren said climate change acts as a mental health multiplier that escalates existing mental health problems.
“For example, for each standard deviation of increased temperature and rainfall, we can expect a 4 percent increase of conflict between individuals and a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups,” she said. “The findings are valid for all ethnicities and regions, so [there could be] more assault, murders and suicides and increase in unrest all over the world.”
Gradual, long-term changes in the climate can also negatively impact the psyche. The APA describes how the Inuit in Canada feel like they are losing control of their traditions and livelihoods as the circumpolar north warms at more than twice the rate of the global average. The community relies on the land to hunt, trap, fish, forage and harvest food, but interviewees reported feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, stress, distress and frustration due to decreased opportunities for land-based activities. Some reported turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to fill the newly “empty” time. As one community member said, “We are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?”
Certain populations are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including people who live in risk-prone areas, indigenous communities, low-income groups, certain communities of color, women, children, older adults and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
Citing multiple studies, the APA explains that young people are more vulnerable than healthy adults because of their small size, developing organs and nervous systems and rapid metabolisms (children typically demonstrate more severe distress than adults). One study found that some preschoolers who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy developed a phobia of rain, waves and thunder that translated to panic about taking baths, going to school (which they feared might flood), and swimming.
“Children also have the potential to be emotionally affected if they become separated from their primary caregivers,” the APA states. “Similar to physical experiences, traumatic mental experiences can have lifelong effects.”
Additionally, the report makes a clear link between mental health issues preceding physical health issues. The stress of climate change “can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which, if prolonged, can affect digestion, lead to memory loss, and suppress the immune system,” the report states. Stress is also a serious risk factor in developing cardiovascular disease.
Even hearing about others’ negative experiences can affect one’s mental stability.
“Some people are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change,” writes the APA. “Some [researchers] stress the possible detrimental impact of guilt, as people contemplate the impact of their own behavior on future generations.”
As van Susteren commented, “Should I have a baby?” is a question increasingly asked by young people worried about the carbon cost of bringing another human into the world.
“Some of us are lucky enough to be at a distance from the world’s climate disasters, but we’re not potted plants sitting here,” she said. “It is painful seeing people drown, burn, flooded, starve, right?”
So how does one cope with ecoanxiety? There are a number of strategies, but Clayton said the most important thing is to encourage social connections and make people feel more secure and give them greater access to information.
The APA lists additional solutions that are good for both people and the planet: “Physical commuting, such as biking or walking, can reduce stress and other mental illnesses, as well as improve cognitive function and academic performance. [Taking] public transportation invigorates community mental health by creating opportunities and networks to increase community cohesion.”
Green spaces can also reduce stress levels and promote positive social interactions. Just 15 minutes in nature can make one happier. Of course, a ruined climate will make it harder to do this, which is why the APA points out that everyone should get involved with implementing solutions and policies that will help preserve our environment and prevent further climate change.
Although climate change might feel too remote, daunting or depressing to fight, ignoring or denying the problem won’t make it go away. (For the record, my forest ecologist friend said he’s “more motivated now than ever” in light of the climate-change-denier-in-chief.)
“The fact that most of us ignore climate change paradoxically makes the effects worse because we don’t really know what to expect and it seems scary and unknown,” Clayton said, “but if we inform ourselves that that’s what is likely to happen in our area, we would be more prepared and in control of the situation.”