“The threat of climate change is a key psychological and emotional stressor,” so says a newly released report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and climate change’s impact on mental health has serious consequences.
Commissioned under the President’s Climate Action Plan, the report entitled, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, uses current research and projections to give an issue-by-issue breakdown of how climate change is likely to affect health, from vector-borne diseases and extreme weather events to air quality impacts and temperature-related death and illness.
On the mental health front, the report highlights the serious mental health consequences resulting from extreme heat and from exposure to weather-related disasters such as hurricanes and floods, stating that depression, general anxiety, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and increases in interpersonal and domestic violence are all common results that will follow from climate change induced extreme weather events.
The report says in the six months following 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the rate of homicide-suicides doubled in Miami-Dade County and after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina residents experienced marked increases in suicidal thoughts (up from 2.8 per cent to 6.4 per cent). “The mental health impacts of extreme weather events can be expected to increase as more people experience the stress -and often trauma- of these disasters,” says the report.
Also discussed are the impacts that the threat of climate change itself can have on the general population. A 2015 survey indicated that about half of Americans reported being worried about climate change and 36 per cent believed that global warming would harm them personally.
Media representations of the threat of climate change are listed as one of the prime forces influencing perception of and thus psychological responses to climate change, ranging from stress and general anxiety to feelings of helplessness, guilt, distress and an eroded sense of self and collective control.
The report says key population groups of concern due to the projected impacts of climate change include children, women, the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, homeless people, those with prior or preexisting mental illnesses, along with emergency workers and first responders.
In Canada, of particular concern is the mental health of residents in our northern communities, where climate change is already affecting both the land and the people. From melting permafrost and shortened seasons to the loss of vital ice roads across the North, global warming’s effects are already visible, and First Nations and Inuit communities and leaders are speaking out about the mental health crisis emerging due to climate change.
According to Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, the need to deal with the growing problem is urgent.
“There’s this dialogue that’s just waiting to leap out into the national and international consciousness,” says Cunsolo Willox. “In Canada, we have this active fishing culture, active farming culture, and large Arctic indigenous groups who are on the front lines of climate change, yet we have been really quiet on this topic.”
The U.S. report recommends upgrading national psychosocial impact assessment and monitoring programs to deal with climate change’s impact on mental health associated issues.