Mental Health and Climate Change

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Young woman enjoys the walk in a snow in nature. Winter concept

As more attention is being paid to climate change, information about the psychological implications is emerging at an astounding pace. It is also fascinating to see the appearance of new terminology to describe these impacts.

New terms such as “eco grief” and “climate stress” are popping up in the scientific and popular press, alluding to acute anxiety about the accelerating degradation of our natural environment.  “Solastalgia” is a recently coined mash-up of the words “solace” and “nostalgia” (or possibly of “solace” and “-algia,” a medical suffix for “pain”). Solastalgia has been defined as a “form of mental or existential distress caused by environmental change.” The concept encompasses a wide range of feelings focused on loss of nature, including sadness, grief, powerlessness, a sense of dislocation, and loss of community identity.

The positive news is that as we gain knowledge about the relationship between natural systems and our wellbeing, we can learn ways to take constructive action. We can gain inspiration from Millennials and Gen Z, who are way ahead of the curve in this regard.  

Here is a brief summary of some ways in which climate change has been associated with adverse effects on mental wellbeing.

With respect to actual warming, data shows a negative relationship between excessive heat and mental wellness. Studies show higher rates of aggression, domestic violence, suicidal thinking, and alcohol abuse when temperatures are higher. In rural areas, heat and associated drought have been associated with suicides among farmers as crops fail, leading to economic stress.

The increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can adversely impact mental health in several ways. Anticipation and preparation for approaching weather events is anxiety-provoking, as is the stress of experiencing, and recovering from, a storm, flood, or fire. The risk of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among survivors of natural disasters, as well as in first responders, is well described. Higher rates of depression and suicide have also been noted.

Dislocations are increasingly common and can take different forms, including short-term evacuation ahead of a storm or wildfire, longer-term dislocation if one’s home and/or community is destroyed (such as the Camp Fire in Paradise, California in November 2018), or more permanently, in places where major weather changes make it untenable to continue a way of life in that area (“eco migration”). For example, nomadic Mongolian sheep, goat and yak herders, faced with significant recent increases in average temperature and harsher and more unpredictable weather patterns, are being forced off the land and into urban areas as their animals die and their traditional way of life is no longer supported. This is a culture where herding has been a way of life for thousands of years. Elevated rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, as well as substance abuse, are well-documented in indigenous populations such as these, when their livelihoods, customs and cultural identity are threatened by changing climate. 

The adverse impacts of climate change on psychological health are now widely recognized. The American Psychiatric Association has even published a “Resource Document on Mental Health and Climate Change.” In 2017, the American Psychological Association co-authored a report titled “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.” In it, the term “eco anxiety” is used, referring to the process of “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.” Symptoms also include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, panic attacks, and even suicidal thoughts.  

Psychological distress increases as we face the medical risks of climate change and pollution (rising rates of asthma and allergies, mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, storm-related injuries, toxic algae blooms, and exposure to carcinogens). 

Noise and light pollution also have adverse effects on physical and psychological health. Noise is associated with sleep disturbance, depression, anxiety, and cognitive delays in children. There is now an actual term, “noise annoyance,” which refers to negative emotions such as irritability, fatigue, a sense of helplessness, and distress when exposed to noise that one cannot control or escape. 

Growing light pollution also affects well-being in several important ways. By disrupting our natural circadian rhythms, artificial lights at night can affect sleep, body temperature, release of hormones, and activity level. Disturbing these biological systems can increase the risk of diabetes and obesity and might even promote tumor growth. Our biological clocks are very old in evolutionary terms, and the full implications of throwing these out of whack are not fully known.  

Luckily, many practical solutions exist. There is real hope that wide-spread adoption of existing technologies, such as solar and wind power, and nearly silent electric vehicles, can profoundly enhance our lives. And the cost of these renewable energy technologies keeps dropping. Locally, many Crozet residents are going solar, as reported in December’s issue of the Gazette. The Crozet Trails Crew is a group of volunteers who are dedicated to extending and maintaining the local trail systems. Crozet is the home of Perrone Robotics, Inc., which recently completed an initial trial of an autonomous electric neighborhood shuttle. The popular and affordable Crozet Connect shuttle, only recently launched, already takes many cars off the road every day. Some WAHS students have started a recycling business in Old Trail. Albemarle County, Charlottesville and U.Va. are all taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The International Dark-Sky Association website describes how people can adjust lighting to preserve darkness while addressing safety concerns; many communities have already successfully done so. 

And as an added bonus, community involvement in general can improve mental health by combatting feelings of defeatism, helplessness, depression, and aloneness; taking action provides a sense of purpose, empowerment, and accomplishment. I certainly feel lucky to live in this community full of positive energy.. 

1 COMMENT

  1. No doubt environmental factors can negatively affect people…that is, those that go outside (Seattleites have been killing themselves for years because of clouds). However, newer generations aren’t all that interested in leaving the security that buildings afford. That is not to say that they aren’t affected by the wicked environment, though, in their case, it’s more mental than physical. They watch what is happening outside (by way of hyped, news segments) while they are safely inside riveted to the can’t-avert-my-eyes imagery on their screen of choice.
    For example, what they will hear from the media-at-large is that heavy rain will affect ? (you fill in the number) millions of people. The subtle meaning behind this is that you are in danger. And, since the rain is heavy, it must be due to climate change, which, coincidentally, you should also be scared of. You even have TV meteorologists telling you whether the rain is beneficial because,…you know…rain can be bad. (Luckily, they include in their forecasts what clothes I should wear to save me from these evil environmental forces, aka nature). The bottom line: Americans have become slaves to media, angst-creating outreach and, combined with peoples’ inability to reason, have developed a whole host of psychiatric conditions. Anyway, the problem with this gloom-and-doom article (which could cause depression in the most vulnerable of readers) is that the media is not mentioned as having one single, solitary effect on people. My advice to help your mental state which is not forthcoming from Dr. Lillian Mezey,…unplug from the media. Simple.

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