Mental Health in Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance

American Psychological Association & ecoAmerica, 2017

‘Mental Health and Our Changing Climate (MHOCC): Impacts, Implications, and Guidance’ is a report published by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica with written contributions from numerous experts (1). This report serves to inform leaders (including climate communicators, health professionals, and policymakers) about the connections between climate change and mental health. MHOCC also aims to increase an overall awareness of how climate change can affect mental health and well-being, as substantially more research and communication has focused on the implications of climate change for individuals’ physical health (1). Shake Up the Establishment has previously summarized information on the topic of climate change and health (both mental and physical) which can be accessed here (2) and here (3). To provide a closer perspective on some key issues at the interface of climate change and mental health, MHOCC further includes six brief essays from professionals with unique areas of expertise in this field.

 

To start, MHOCC broadly describes how the impacts of climate change (on the health of people and communities) can occur directly and/or indirectly. For instance, climate change can increase the likelihood and severity of a natural disaster which causes stress and physical danger (direct effects), while a community experiencing insecurity in their food system could represent an indirect effect of climate change. It’s important to note that not all populations and communities experience the health effects of climate change equally: A variety of complex and often systemic factors (including geographic location, access to education, pre-existing disabilities or inequalities etc.) influence how, and the degree to which, climate change can affect mental health. Children, for instance, represent a population that is especially vulnerable to the associated stressors of climate impacts (1).

 

As another example with particular relevance to Canada, MHOCC features an essay on Inuit mental health and climate change. Temperatures in the circumpolar north are rising at double the average global rate, contributing to disproportionately higher impacts on local Indigenous communities. Moreover, the land (including sea ice) is “everything” for Indigenous communities, as it represents, among other things, a source of sustenance (through hunting, foraging etc.), a connection to culture, and a place of healing. The relationships between climate change and mental health have been studied with Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador, revealing a diverse range of impacts for individuals and communities. These include strong emotional responses, loss of control over livelihoods and culture, more drinking and/or drug usage, and the ability for climate-related impacts to compound other sources of stress (1).

 

In a general context, MHOCC notes that it can be difficult for people to comprehend and communicate the connections between climate change and mental health. Many factors underlie this difficulty, such as an individuals’ prior beliefs and the concept of psychological distance (i.e. where climate change feels like a distant issue that will affect other people and places). However, promoting an understanding of how climate change can have personal impacts on an individuals’ well-being helps motivate people to support and engage in positive climate solutions. Many of these solutions (often simple behavioural changes such as active commuting or using public transport) can also support psychological health; in other words, these actions are good for both people and the planet (1).

 

This report also stresses that, although they may not always be obvious, the mental health impacts of climate change can be very serious and need to be addressed as such. Indeed, depression, antisocial behaviour, and suicide are all possible climate-related mental health disorders that require medical attention (1).

 

While a particular climate phenomenon can certainly apply to both of the following categories, MHOCC classifies the major mental health impacts of climate change as acute or chronic. Acute impacts are often precipitated by extreme weather events or pollution and encompass a range of mental disorders including shock, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Chronic impacts can be tied to feelings of loss for important places and things that have been altered by climate change. Over time, chronic impacts can present in many different ways, including a heightened sense of helplessness/hopelessness, elevated rates of violence/aggression, and a greater frequency of mental health emergencies (1).

 

As humans are fundamentally social beings, the mental health impacts of climate change can extend beyond individuals to affect the relationships and social cohesion of communities. Indeed, the well-being of a group can be harmed by environmental changes that cause ecoanxiety and even the need to relocate (ecomigration). Accordingly, efforts to build resilience to climate change need to support the psychological well-being of both individuals and communities (1).

 

To this end, MHOCC offers four sets of recommendations for different groups and stakeholders. First, in order to support individuals, practitioners, policymakers, and climate and/or health communicators are advised to “build belief in one’s own resilience, foster optimism, cultivate active coping and self-regulation skills, maintain practices that help to provide a sense of meaning, and promote connectedness to family, place, culture, and community” (1).

 

Second, the general public, organizations, and mental/public health professionals can play a valuable role in supporting communities. It is thus recommended to “assess and expand community mental health infrastructure, reduce disparities and pay attention to populations of concern, engage and train community members on how to respond, ensure distribution of resources and augment with external supplies, and have clear and frequent climate–mental health communication” (1).

 

Third, individuals can “make and practice household emergency plans, participate in mindset training to prepare for adversity and adaptation through increased awareness of our emotions, care for oneself through healthy habits, and connect with family, friends, neighbors, and other groups to build strong social networks” (1).

 

Fourth, for mental health professionals (and other leaders) looking to help, you can “become a mental health–related climate-literate professional, engage fellow public and mental health professionals, be vocal, model leaders within your communities, and support national and international climate–mental health solutions” (1).

 

The impacts of climate change are already being experienced by populations around the world, and the severity of these impacts will continue to increase under current emissions scenarios. To date, literature on the mental health impacts of climate change has been lacking (relative to other climate-related topics), but MHOCC provides an important and timely update on this field of research. This report expands on its 2014 predecessor entitled ‘Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change’ (4) by equipping concerned parties with the latest information and tips to address mental health as it relates to climate change. The American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica further encourage readers to visit their websites to participate in webinars and access other resources on this topic. A national report entitled the ‘Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate’ is also set to be released in the year 2021 and will feature up to date information on climate change and mental health and well-being (5).

 

Read the full report here.

 

References

 

1. Clayton S, Manning CM, Krygsman K, & Speiser M. Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica, 2017. Available from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf

2. Health. Shake Up The Establishment, 2020. Available from https://www.shakeuptheestab.org/health

3. Bell I. Updates in the field of climate change and health. Shake Up The Establishment, 2020. Available from https://www.shakeuptheestab.org/post/health-climate-change

4. Clayton S, Manning CM, & Hodge C. Beyond storms & droughts: The psychological impacts of climate change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, 2014. Available from https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/eA_Beyond_Storms_and_Droughts_Psych_Impacts_of_Climate_Change.pdf

5. Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate. Government of Canada, 2020. Available from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/maps-tools-publications/publications/climate-change-publications/canada-changing-climate-reports/health-canadians-changing-climate/21189

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