How is climate change affecting our mental health?

We have all heard that spending time in nature can do wonders for our mental health, and in many cases this is true. But what do we do when it is the very collapse of nature itself that is causing our poor mental health?

In 2009, The Lancet Commission on climate change stated that “climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” Whilst this statement was referring specifically to physical health, it is becoming ever clearer that this is true of mental health as well.

Climate change can have negative implications on our mental health either directly, through exposure to natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, or indirectly, through media exposure, climate-induced poverty, or forced migration.

Following direct exposure to a climate-induced disaster, the most prominent mental health symptoms amongst those affected include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. For those that are indirectly exposed, many have reported debilitating levels of guilt, helplessness, fear, and anxiety.

As we become more aware of the encroaching climate disaster, and there is talk of a mental health pandemic, attention has turned to finding out how these two events are linked. Whilst data on this topic remains in its infancy, clear patterns do appear to be emerging, such as the disproportionate effect on the mental health of children. Over 50% of children and teenagers in the US express emotions of fear and anger towards climate problems, whilst 20% of children in the UK said that worrying about climate change had impacted their eating habits and sleep.

Recent surveys carried out in Rigolet, an Inuit community in North Canada, highlight how indigenous communities are also amongst the hardest hit. Discussions with both community members and health professionals revealed a direct link between climate change and mental health. Members of the Rigolet community reported that being able to hunt, fish, travel, and forage as they have done for hundreds of years is integral to their culture and identity. With the warming climate and melting ice limiting their movements and activities, people have reported feeling a loss of identity and energy.

 “I find that when you can’t get out so much, or you don’t have the opportunity to get out, you tend to do more things. Some people use addictions more, whatever that may be. It may be drinking, or drugging…that’s increasing.”

Others have described feeling “like a caged animal” and stated that they are being stripped of their “profound and spiritual” connection with nature.

Whilst climate change is clearly affecting our mental health, it is important to maintain a distinction between a rational, adaptive response to climate change, and a mental health pathology. The feeling of anxiety itself is not a problem with mental health, and is thought to have evolved to motivate positive action towards an issue. Regarding climate change, this could include engaging with climate activism or making more sustainable lifestyle choices. However, for many people the negative feelings surrounding climate change do become chronic and debilitating, and this is where the problem lies.

The way in which climate change is affecting our mental health can no longer be another unspoken consequence of human damage. Be it through offering financial aid to suffering countries, or simply teaching children how to express and cope with their concerns, efforts to relieve symptoms of climate-induced poor mental health are vital. Only then will we be fully equipped to discuss the rising urgency of the climate problem, and tackle the issue at the source. 

Image credit: Antoine Maillard