Can Climate Change Cause Mental Health Struggles?

Before I answer the question, think and tell me this: Do you get easily irritated when the weather is too hot compared to when the weather is pleasant? Do you find it difficult to sit in one place and concentrate on your work when it seems the sun is sucking the energy from your body with straws like that old Glucon-D advertisement? Have you also felt that the intensity of the heat has drastically risen to what it was a few decades ago? Yes? Well, hop on the wagon as I feel the same. 

Despite impacting our mental health on a daily basis it is ironic that we hear quite less about the impact of climate change on our mental health. I am sure most of us are aware about its impact on the economy and the environment. We often see news regarding the same. Before we dig in further into the matter, here’s some important news that you may have missed:

“Air Pollution Linked to Depression, Suicide in Global Study” – The Swaddle, 2019

“Climate Change Won’t Spare Our Mental Health
— We need to prepare for longer-term effects beyond the physical” – Medpage Today, 2022

As is evident, the earth is facing a life-threatening climate crisis. Concerned bodies like WHO and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have confirmed that rapidly increasing climate change poses a rising threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being causing an array of problems, from emotional distress to anxiety, depression, grief, and suicidal behavior. Mild distress reactions tend to heal with time. However, if say, people directly affected by the climate crisis do not seek help or cope with their trauma, it may lead to more severe mental health impacts. Moreover, with climate change causing a five-fold increase in the number of weather-related disasters over the last five decades, the need for disaster-related trauma care will only grow. 

The mental health consequences also include insomnia, irritability, and high-risk coping behavior such as increased alcohol use. Supporting what we discussed in the beginning, research has shown a link between extreme heat and an increase in irritability, aggressiveness, and further violence. Recent research (based in US) published in the journal, the Lancet Planetary Health, brought forth an interesting yet unfortunate result: climate change is making us angrier. The researchers observed a spike in hate comments on social media when temperatures rose above 30 degrees Celsius. A similar phenomenon has also been documented in China as well. Online aggressive behavior has been linked to violence offline too. Outraging posts have led to more violence toward minorities, including mass shootings and lynchings. Furthermore, according to experts, climate change may contribute to worsening of existing mental health problems, especially extreme heat, that can interfere with medications and underlying health conditions.

It is important to note that the impact of climate change on our mental health is interlinked with its impact on the economy and the environment. The threat it poses to our livelihood and to our home itself, is a source of distress and anxiety to a lot of us. You might have come across people around you or on the internet or yourself might have experienced helplessness and distress over the drastic impacts of climate change and consequently might have felt an urge to do something about it before it’s too late. As a parent or an adult, kids might have raised their concerns and questions regarding the same, leaving you unsure of what you should say. On the other hand, due to lack of awareness you might not have realised this responsibility and all this information might have overwhelmed you. Don’t worry! You are not alone either. 

So, what can we do?

First, take a deep breath and give yourself a moment to take in all the above information. It sure is a lot.

Next, to cope with such stresses and overwhelming feeling, start with the basic: acknowledge and accept your feelings. It’s completely okay to feel anxious and afraid of the effects of climate change on an individual or global level, after all it threatens our entire existence. Moreover, experts highly advise that parents pay more attention and lend an empathetic ear to their children expressing eco-anxiety, i.e., fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster due to climate change. This will not only validate their feelings but will also help motivate them to engage in eco-friendly practices and ways of living. It is important that they know that adults around them share their feelings and are working towards mitigating the threat. 

Another step is to make a safety plan, especially if you live in areas prone to extreme weather events, like droughts, floods, earthquakes, and so on. Safety plans can include keeping an emergency bag filled with necessary items like a few clothes, food supplies, and a first-aid kit in case there arises a need for escape. Stocking one’s house with supplies, such as flashlights, and fire extinguishers will also help instill a sense of safety, preparedness, and confidence to face extreme weather situations.

Some people worry more than others. In case one finds themselves experiencing climate distress on such a level that it disrupts their life, seeking help is highly advisable. One can always express their concerns to a doctor or a mental health practitioner. 

It is also imperative that, on the community level, people unite, be prepared and help one another in times of crisis. Research has shown that places, where there was a strong sense of community, saw less mental health distress after storms and other extreme climate crises. 

These are a few steps one can take to take care of their mental health and of those around them in these trying times. You might be feeling a mixed of emotions right now after having consumed such profound information. Sit back and give yourself a moment to take in everything. Talking to a friend, a family member or anyone whom you think will understand is another good idea. If at any point the distress is too much to handle, seeking help from a professional is advisable. You can always talk to any of the psychologists at TherapHeal. Afterall, we are here to help.

Author: Mushkan Jogani, an aspiring psychologist and researcher with a knack for writing and overthinking

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