“Save the Earth - we have no Planet B.”; “You planet needs you” ; “The Climate is changing, why aren’t we?”, “Make a change for Climate Change”… and the list can go on. When we think about climate change, we tend to think about sea levels rising, melting glaciers, erratic weather patterns, but do we think of deteriorating Mental Health?
We’ve long passed the point of writing off signs of climate change as simply another phase in the normal cycle of global warming and cooling. Our actions have altered Earth’s climate, and the impact of this is becoming increasingly visible. Now more than ever we are also being actively encouraged to pay attention to climate change and to strive to combat its impacts to protect our planet. Most people realize climate change can affect physical health through pollution, the spread of disease, and food scarcity. However, when we tend to think about climate change, we usually focus on the impact it has on the environment and possibly in some cases, we think about our physical health too. However, what we forget to take into account is the impact climate change and environmental degradation can have on our Mental Health. This impact is going to be the subject of this piece where we will look at various facets of how this can manifest.
As people around the world are growing increasingly anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, there has been a rise in what experts are terming as Ecoanxiety. Ecoanxiety can be explained as a chronic fear of ecological and environmental disaster which is characterised by severe and debilitating worry about climate and environmental risks. This can elicit reactions which include loss of appetite, sleeplessness, and panic attacks among those affected. In the recent years there has been an increase in media interest around Ecoanxiety given the effects of climate change which we are starting to see in terms of changing weather patterns and environmental disasters.
Climate change can cause and intensify stress and anxiety, adversely affecting mental health but it is important to know that while everyone is at risk, not everyone is affected equally. There are groups of the population who are more vulnerable than others. The populations which are more vulnerable include children, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with cognitive or mobility impairments, women (especially those who are pregnant or postpartum). Also at risk are disadvantaged groups, those with existing mental illness, and those with close ties to the land, including farmers and indigenous communities, and people with mental illness. People of lower socioeconomic status, migrants, refugees and the homeless may also be more vulnerable.
Now let us look at the impact of climate change related severe weather changes or natural disasters. A more short-term and immediate impact these can have are trauma and shock due to injuries, grief, loss of a loved one, damage or loss of property, livelihoods, or prized possessions. Climate change and related disasters cause anxiety-related responses as well as chronic and severe mental health disorders in the long term. Anger and shock are amongst the other intense emotions which can overwhelm individuals and while their initial responses are likely to subside, it can be replaced by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety related disorders, depression and substance abuse. The trauma and losses from a disaster, such as losing a home or job and being disconnected from neighbourhood and community, can contribute to feelings of extreme depression, loneliness and anxiety as well. One example of the impact that disasters can have was seen amongst a sample of people who lived in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Data revealed that suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled, 1 in 6 people met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and 49% developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression in the months that followed.
Extreme weather events have also been associated with increases in aggressive behaviour and domestic violence. Flooding and prolonged droughts have been associated with elevated levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders. When it comes to extreme heat, there are chances that this can lead to increased use of alcohol as an unhealthy coping technique which in turn might lead to additional chances of hospital and emergency room admissions for people pre-existing Mental Health conditions, and an increase in suicidal tendencies. Increasing temperatures is likely to increase rates of aggression and violent suicides, while prolonged droughts due to climate change can lead to more number of farmer suicides. An increase in the frequency of disasters can also lead to the concern of populations needing to migrate, which can lead to acculturation stress. Disasters can also lead to increased rates of physical illnesses as an aftermath which secondarily would be associated with psychological distress.
Emotional turmoil and Mental Health distress related to climate change may seem less obvious to us usually than the tangible, serious damage many people are already facing around the world, but it is still essential to take these into account. It is important to also keep in mind that the need for Mental Health services increases in the aftermath of a climate-related disaster. This is something which when authorities and charities focus on rehabilitation efforts should keep in mind. Awareness, after all is the key to make change. Efforts to increase Mental Health services and attempts to take care of the environment can go a long way to deal with the challenges and mitigate the damage posed by climate change in the time to come.
Written by: Vedica Podar
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