Climate on the Mind: The Psychological Effects of Climate Change

After heavy rains cause flooding and forced evacuation in High River, Alberta, two men attempt to rescue remaining residents in June of 2013. From Jeff McIntosh, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/solastalgia-climate-change_ca_5cd57daae4b07bc72978904e

VAISHNAVI BHAMIDI

Daily life is relatively unpredictable. The lack of job security, capricious governments, stagnating economic growth, along with the micro-annoyances of an average day, can amount to significant loads of stress. This stress, when paired with a lack of resources and support networks, gives rise to serious mental health issues. However, the uncertainties of daily life seem to pale in comparison to the growing uncertainty concerning the climate. If man-made institutions and systems can impact mental health so fundamentally, the degree of psychological trauma that a phenomenon as pervasive as climate change can give rise to is unprecedented.        

It’s no secret that human health has been, and is continuing to be impacted by climate change. Adverse weather outcomes such as more frequent and dangerous natural calamities, expansive droughts, and melting glacial ice have slowly become a serious concern. With these issues come a host of threats to health, such as increases in the incidence of vector-borne diseases, morbidity due to extreme weather events, heat-related morbidity, and the incidence of respiratory illnesses [1]. However, these threats are disproportionately more prevalent within marginalized groups, such as Indigenous Peoples, children, seniors, women, racialized people, immigrants, and those who suffer from pre-existing health conditions [1]. A study published by The Lancet explained that climate change acts as a health threat ‘amplifier’, aggravating pre-existing social inequalities [2]. 

The deleterious impact of climate change is now beginning to be studied in conjunction with mental health. Similar to physiological illness, poor mental health is considerably more difficult to link to climate change since it is the result of convoluted causal pathways that may include famine, war, and mass migration [2]. The most well-elucidated line of argument is in the field that examines how extreme weather events affect psychological well-being. There is a consensus that such events can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD), anxiety, and trauma [1]. A study that examined the aftermath of the 2016 Fort McMurray forest fire in Alberta, Canada, found that many of the survivors are still battling MDD and substance abuse as a result of the fire [3]. Grief and survivor guilt are also commonly associated with extreme weather events. Professor Ashlee Cunsolo at Memorial University found that Inuit communities in Labrador expressed deep regret over the loss of historically-occupied land in Canada’s north due to disappearing glacial ice [4]. 

The research presented by scientific literature speaks to the fundamental connection between the environment and human society. The land upon which dwellings are built and communities are formed impacts the cultural identity, autonomy, sovereignty, and heritage of individuals. Adverse weather events that cause mass migration, threaten traditional ways of life and uproot one’s sense of identity. As a result, many of these communities witness increased levels of criminal activity, violence, and aggression [1]. This principle forms the crux of how climate change erodes an individual’s mental well-being. 

Apart from the macro-effects of climate change, various other psychological effects are also emerging. In a landmark paper, Glenn Albrecht coined the term ‘solastagia’ [5]. He refers to it as the “pain or distress caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the negatively perceived state of one’s home environment” [5]. People who experience solastagia need not be the direct victims of climate change. It can be anyone who perceives a disconnect with the current state of the place and wishes it to be ‘as it was in the past’. 

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a comprehensive report about the impacts of climate change on mental health [6]. In this report, the term “eco-anxiety,” a “chronic fear of environmental doom,” was referenced [6]. This form of anxiety is becoming increasingly more prevalent. People are frustrated by their inability to aid in the effort to stop climate change and worry about future generations. This points to a general shift in culture and the addition of yet another stressor which exacerbates emotions of helplessness, anger, and sadness. In the case of an individual who has had first-hand experience of a climate change catastrophe, the effects may be much more serious. According to the APA, extreme forms of this stress can lead to a lowered immune response, thus making an individual more likely to contract disease [6]. The APA also suggests that the elevated levels of cortisol that accompany this stress may affect digestion and memory [6].    

Much of an individual’s identity is derived from where they grew up and whom they grew up with. Injuring those components of the human experience will have serious psychological implications. Accelerating climate change causes homes to be destroyed by natural disasters, communities to be fragmented by mass migration, and additional stressors to be added on top of already-high stress levels. There is potential, which, if uncorrected, can become a certainty, for not only the loss of property and accretion of physiological illness but also the onset of serious mental health problems. Inaction and lethargy in regards to tackling climate change will profoundly diminish the mental well-being of future generations.          

 

References

[1] Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 12(1). doi: 10.1186/s13033-018-0210-6 

[2] Watts, N., Amann, M., Ayeb-Karlsson, S., Belesova, K., Bouley, T., Boykoff, M., … Costello, A. (2018). The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: from 25 years of inaction to a global transformation for public health. The Lancet, 391 (10120). doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32464-9 

[3] Weber, B. (2018, October 29). Fort McMurray Fire Survivors Plagued By Serious Mental Health Problems: Study. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/fort-mcmurray-fire-survivors-plagued-by-serious-mental-health-problems-study_ca_5cd572b0e4b07bc729782c6a?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuaHVmZmluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY2EvZW50cnkvc29sYXN0YWxnaWEtY2xpbWF0ZS1jaGFuZ2VfY2FfNWNkNTdkYWFlNGIwN2JjNzI5Nzg5MDRl&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACexI4Wbn8rv3ma8K5zOLvhOzSLSoKCeiDMRkqfzDf-JTCnOWqwqRRGw1alZmObmKq0jxyxY9ce3GUfZlCBqk9BgSWiQ-xdiFLi-FjAF2RJKh892L1aulboLMfkzWbw-McWin_Y_kk59CD3xR6hgQrWeror5tgokQWXGhro3A_59.

[4] Press, C. (2018, December 13). Feeling Anxious And Powerless About Climate Change? It’s Called Solastalgia. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/solastalgia-climate-change_ca_5cd57daae4b07bc72978904e

[5] Albrecht, G., Sartore, G.-M., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., … Pollard, G. (2007). Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change. Australas Psychiatry, 15(Suppl 1): S95-8. doi: 10.1080/10398560701701288

[6] Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.