Climate Change Is Affecting Mental Health Literally Everywhere

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Yves here. This article identifies how climate change is harming emotional well-being and focuses on populations that are particularly vulnerable. IMHO the impact on the young cannot be overstated. Even though they already have many stressors, like high income inequality creating insecurity even among the well off (if you lose your perch, it can be a long way down), extortionate and seemingly only rising real estate and health care costs, and for many, student debt loads, climate change puts a deep pall over all of them. The prospect of already stressful circumstances being fundamentally upended, whether by local conditions that wreak personal havoc like wildfires and floods or societal upheaval, can’t be easy to contend with.

I am bothered that this story advocates what is essentially denialism as a coping strategy. Yours truly is not big on hope in general, and particularly in dealing with systemic crises. Some readings of the Pandora’s Box myth depict Hope emerging last, after all the other evils have been loosed upon mankind, as not a form of relief but yet another curse.

But that seems fundamental to the human condition. I sometimes repeat this tale:

In the Indian epic Mahabharata, Yudhisthira goes looking for his missing brothers, who went searching for water. He finds them all dead next to a pond. In despair, but still parched, he is about to drink, but a crane tells him he must answer some questions first.

The last and most difficult: “What is the greatest wonder of the world?” Yudhisthira answers, “Day after day, hour after hour, countless people die, yet the living believe they will live forever.” The crane reveals himself to be the Lord of Death and, after some further discussion, revives the brothers.

By Daisy Simmons, assistant editor at Yale Climate Connections. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

Farmers who can’t sleep, worrying they’ll lose everything amid increasing drought. Youth struggling with depression over a future that feels hopeless. Indigenous people grief-stricken over devastated ecosystems. For all these people and more, climate change is taking a clear toll on mental health — in every part of the world.

Experts shared these examples and others during a recent summit organized by the Connecting Climate Minds network that brought together hundreds of scientists, doctors, community leaders, and other experts from dozens of countries who have spent the past year studying how climate change is harming mental health in their regions.

Although mental illnesses are often viewed as an individual problem, the experts made clear that climate change is contributing to mental health challenges everywhere.

The Connecting Climate Minds youth ambassador from Borneo, Jhonatan Yuditya Pratama, said his Indigenous community views nature as a sacred extension of being. Seeing the devastation of climate change on ancestral lands has brought his community “a profound sense of grief and loss,” he said.

“For us, mental health isn’t just about individuals,” he said. “It’s about the collective well-being of our communities and the land itself. When nature suffers, so do we.”

Extreme Weather and Air Pollution Are Taking a Toll 

In her keynote, Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown and a Connecting Climate Minds advisory board member, explained the key ways that climate change threatens mental health.

  • Extreme heat is associated with increased self-harm and violence as well as more general feelings of negativity. It also leads to feelings of isolation when people feel trapped inside their relatively cooler homes.
  • Wildfire or extreme weather stokes anxiety leading up to an event — and afterward — that can lead to PTSD or depression for survivors who have seen cherished places or lives lost.
  • Farmers, fisherpeople, and others whose livelihoods are tied to the environment experience chronic stress, worry, and depression over things they can’t control, like extreme weather, habitat loss, and drought.
  • Water scarcity increases stress for people in charge of seeking and transporting household water. Water scarcity also makes it hard for people to stay clean, potentially leading to isolation, loneliness, and depression.
  • Air pollution can keep kids out of school, leading to social isolation and, over time, a sense of hopelessness about the future.

What’s more, people are experiencing the compounding effects of multiple disasters, said Emma Lawrance, who leads the Climate Cares Centre, a U.K.-based team that researches and supports mental health in the face of environmental crises: “With more frequent disasters, people can no longer recover psychologically from one before another occurs,” Lawrance said.

And these escalating hazards are exacerbating social inequality, said Alaa Abelgawad, the Connecting Climate Minds youth ambassador representing northern Africa and western Asia. “[It’s] manifesting as anxiety, depression, and a profound sense of disempowerment among marginalized populations.”

Who Is Most Vulnerable to Climate Change and Mental Health Challenges? 

Many Indigenous communities have already been facing intergenerational trauma and a sense of deep disconnect from land and culture. Recurring climate devastation can intensify feelings of grief, stress, and disillusionment about the future, contributing to increased rates of addiction and suicide, participants said.

Farmers, too, are among the most vulnerable. Changing seasonal norms, increasing drought, and a higher risk of severe weather are directly affecting their livelihoods.

Sacha Wright, head of research at the youth-focused organization Force of Nature and part of Connecting Climate Minds’s “lived experience” working group, said that in Kenya, many small farmers are struggling with declining harvests and out of desperation have resorted to cutting down trees for charcoal. Though they felt they had no choice, some said cutting down the trees made the whole situation feel even worse. She spoke of high rates of depression, hopelessness, trauma, and a widespread feeling of “not knowing what to do.”

For young people, climate change can also evoke a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. In the Yucatan, one young person Wright interviewed said the only choices in life there are to migrate or enter the military.

“When I see drought, I see my community leaving school and going to the military,” the person interviewed said.

Mercy Njeru, a member of Connecting Climate Mind’s sub-Saharan Africa working group, said extreme heat is often leading to school closures across the region, setting youth up for failure and a sense of hopelessness.

“When it’s so hot and you’re so anxious you can’t work, you can’t do anything because you’re feeling anxious or you’re feeling so sad from all the heat around you,” she said.

In addition to environmental impacts, generational inequity and a sense of moral distress also contribute to anxiety for many youth. Britt Wray, director of Stanford Medicine’s Special Initiative on Climate Change and Mental Health, said she hears from many young people that power holders aren’t taking sufficient action, instead depending entirely on their generation to solve climate change.

“This offloading of responsibility — without adequate partnership from the elder and more powerful contingents among us — can make burdensome climate anxiety and distress much worse,” she said.

What Can Be Done to Protect Mental Health as the Climate Changes? 

To help address the rising tide of mental health challenges, governments and public health leaders need to know exactly what kinds of impacts people are experiencing in their own communities.

First step: looking at experiences in every region.

“We will only be successful if we can continue to connect and engage people from very different sectors, from neighborhoods all the way to multilateral organizations,” said Pamela Collins, chair of the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Other examples of ways forward include everything from expanding health insurance to include climate-related mental health impacts to ensuring government policy supports people whose work has been affected by climate change to improve their job prospects. Several participants also spoke of the importance of returning to the wisdom of ancestral knowledge to address climate change in general, including mental health impacts.

Other specific solutions offered by Connecting Climate Minds participants include:

  • More public green space. Collins, the Hopkins professor, cited a study highlighting the need for more accessible green space in cities, a move that could have multiple positive outcomes, including on mental health. Forest bathing, AKA spending dedicated time in nature, reduces stress and anxiety, increases serotonin production, and improves mood regulation and overall mental health — all while being low-intensity and low-cost, said Niaya Harper Igarashi, part of Connecting Climate Mind’s eastern and southeastern Asia working group.
  • Focusing on reducing inequity. Making sure everyone has access to nutritious food, clean air and water, and sustainable energy sources is good for the climate and community.
  • Talking helps. In many communities, mental health is a taboo topic. By talking more openly about it on a personal level, in social or spiritual settings, at the dinner table, or in your doctor’s office, individuals can combat stigma and contribute to a growing understanding of these issues.
  • Meeting people where they are. From using vocabulary that makes sense for different communities to meeting people’s basic needs, solutions are most effective when they’re tailored for what real people are actually going through. For example, Wray, the Stanford expert, said meeting kids where they are includes screening for climate distress where many of them are every day: at school.

Lawrance, the Climate Cares lead who helped organize the summit, said it was heartening to see solutions being advanced around the world.

“The dialogue showed this really strongly: that many solutions do already exist,” she said. “And it’s by learning from each other’s ways of knowing and doing that we can best find the ones that work for our context, and ensure people experiencing the worst climate impacts have a future where they cannot just survive, but thrive.”

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18 comments

  1. JW

    I am not arguing about whether or not CO2 is responsible for anything.
    Climate has always changed and weather changes rapidly over short periods. Natural disaster have always occurred, many as a consequence of weather effects. Man has always affected both climate over a longer period , helping to create the amazon jungle was an example. More recently adopting a 24/7 urban lifestyle with tarmac and concrete affects the climate. Nature still dominates with undersea volcanoes an example.
    What has really changed over the last 50 years is the increase in instant news of these events wherever they occur. And the impact of ‘blame’ put at man’s door has gone hand in hand with this.
    Young people in particular are very susceptible to these trends, they naturally want to be inclusive and proactive, which is good, but these traits can be influenced for good and bad.
    Much of the mental problems are symptomatic of increasing uncertainty over just about everything, there are precious few certainties any more. Belief that man can control all events on or above this planet is overall destructive.

    Reply
    1. Æ

      There is not more uncertainty, just more appreciation for the uncertainty that exists. Burying your head in the sand is a great way to stop wondering what you are looking at.

      There are multiple forms of denial, lol

      Reply
    2. steppenwolf fetchit

      You are making a stealth argument disguised as ” non-argument”.

      If you feel your analysis of ongoing climate trends is accurate, then you should be able to perceive a fantastic contrarian-investment opportunity laid out at your feet.

      Just read the climate predictions put out by the yes-greenhouse-gases-are-warming-the-surfacesphere climatologists and imagine what would happen if all or most or even just some of the predictions turn out wrong, and the ongoing trends turn around and reverse. Imagine all the people investiing their investments based on diverting their money away from the predicted and unfolding events.

      Now imagine yourself investing in everything they are divesting from. In 50-100 years, you or your heirs will be positioned to make huge amounts of money as all the divesters see how wrong they were and move to re-invest in the returning opportunities that you or your heirs are now squatting on because you bought them for pennies-on-the-benjamin when all the climate chicken littles were divesting.

      Buy coastal land in Florida, Louisiana, etc. Get out there and do it.

      What are you waiting for?

      Fortune favors the bold.

      Reply
  2. john

    climate change and mental health…not just mental health.
    During last summer’s heat and period of dangerous air quality due to wild fires, my physical therapist commented on the increase in the number of her patients suffering from vertigo. My ophthalmologist noted the same, patients referred to him after vertigo episodes to check if eyesight was involved. All this treatment, initial diagnosis, brain scan to check for stroke and referral costs money, and it’s frightening.

    Reply
  3. CA

    “I am not arguing about whether or not CO2 is responsible for anything…”

    Forgive me for thinking that this is precisely what is being argued about, and that this argument is incorrect and deceptive. Decades of precise data show just what human-produced CO2 emission is responsible for. We are indeed collectively capable of limiting CO2 emission and atmospheric CO2 concentrations and resulting warming. ]

    Reply
    1. GramSci

      Aye. I declined to Reply, on the principle of “Don’t Feed the Trolls”. Still, it’s depressing how often the oil companies are the first to comment on any post with “climate” in the headline.

      Reply
      1. CA

        Still, it’s depressing how often the oil companies are the first to comment on any post with “climate” in the headline.

        [ I understand now. The routine climate change denial is depressing because it is meant to directly harm us. We are after all passing through the 12th month of record global atmospheric warmth in each of the past 11 months since 1880. Also ocean warmth shows the same. ]

        Reply
      2. steppenwolf fetchit

        And not just from the fossil fuel hasbarists.

        Many “conservatives” and especially “cultural conservatives” consider manmade-global-warming denial to be an expression of free-thinking independence and political-cultural tough-guy manhood.

        And some are just self-amusement trolls getting their lulz ( is that still a word?) by owning the liberals on a blog thread.

        Ahh. . . but what if they are right? Well . . . they get the last laugh.
        And if they are wrong? Let Darwin take them.

        Reply
  4. CA

    http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abs/ha00410c.html

    December, 2008

    Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?
    By James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Pushker Kharecha, David Beerling, Robert Berner, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Mark Pagani, Maureen Raymo, Dana L. Royer and James C. Zachos

    Abstract

    Paleoclimate data show that climate sensitivity is ~ 3°C for doubled CO2, including only fast feedback processes. Equilibrium sensitivity, including slower surface albedo feedbacks, * is ~ 6°C for doubled CO2 for the range of climate states between glacial conditions and ice-free Antarctica. Decreasing CO2 was the main cause of a cooling trend that began 50 million years ago, the planet being nearly ice-free until CO2 fell to 450 ± 100 ppm; barring prompt policy changes, that critical level will be passed, in the opposite direction, within decades. If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm ** to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. *** An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects. ****

    * Surface reflectivity of sun’s radiation

    ** Currently ~ 423 ppm: https://gml.noaa.gov/ccgg/trends/

    *** Net change in radiant emittance or irradiance

    **** https://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/2008/2008_Hansen_ha00410c.pdf

    Reply
  5. i just dont like the gravy

    We have reached a tipping point. Watch the Canadian wildfires and sea surface temperatures this season.

    In the meantime, why not buy GameStop $GME and get one last pump in before it all becomes dust in the wind?

    Reply
  6. Adam1

    LOL!!!
    Yves, your comment about “hope” and Pandora’s box really made my day. While I’d agree with your assessment it also plays in with an old Robin William’s set…

    I was golfing with my brothers a week or so ago and one of them brought up his set on the Scottish inventing golf and how it’s way harder than any other sports. He’s got this one line… after he’s already told you how hard it is because you need to use this weird shaped club; it’s a tiny goffer hole that’s placed 100’s of yards away; and there are all these obstacles in the way; and you’re guaranteed to be so upset after each swing of the club we’ll call it a stroke because that’s how you feel (like you’re about to have one)…

    …where he says, then we’ll have this flat surface near the hole with a tiny flag just to give you some HOPE. LOL!!! Hope indeed can be the most vile evil of them all for sure.

    Reply
  7. Saffa

    Haha agreed that the Pandora story re hope made me grin. Or is it grimace (?)
    And the “stroke”… hilarious!

    I consider myself an early climate crisis mental health casualty. Nervous breakdown in 2003 at age 22.

    It forced me to find reasons to ‘hope’ that has less to do with futuristic fantasies or anxious solution chasing, and really find something in every day or place to keep believing that something about this human existence is worth celebrating, protecting, nurturing even if it all breaks down.

    It’s maybe not the most optimistic of existences, but it is deep and rich in meaning. I cry a lot. For some reason much much more than half the time of that, because of something small, seemingly ordinary, and also somehow exquisitely beautiful.

    I can’t remember which movie this was, it was a French one. There was this scene where the father passed away and some days after the funeral, his wife sits in the car. There is a small blow-up neck pillow. She puts the opening to her mouth and you realise that his breath is still in there. A part of him that is still here, as if in a time capsule, an ephemeral relic. She breathes her husbands’ breath in, like she is drinking from a fountain that is now forever gone, the very last drop until the pillow is just this limp thing.
    Something about that gesture was so incredibly moving.

    Living in this time makes me feel like that. I do sometimes wonder if it’s so different to how it was before for others, for ancestors even if the exact circumstances might be different. A weird wonder-full kind of comfort. Like contact with something ancient.

    Could hope be a useful evolutionary adaptation?

    Reading Jeff Vermeer’s Dead Astronauts (and other titles) feels like reading religious texts. It is so profoundly hopeless in many ways, stark, hallucinatory, naked really. But a sort of stubborn tired wilful drive pushes the characters forward, even when they have given up. And then in moments of painfully vulnerable clarity visions burst or bleed forth and it doesn’t even matter if what they see is real or true, only that the end of their terrible journey blankets them in imagery and sensations of the many, or the few, things, moments, people they had the opportunity to love. Somehow to me this feels like more than religious (h)opium, maybe instead the kernel of what it means to be human and humane and like a secret that we keep forgetting and which might just hold the key to what we do and where we go next.

    Reply
    1. Emma

      I take comfort in geological time and the unknowability of reality. We’re unlikely to really kill off the biosphere, we can at worst only set it back by 5 to 10 million years. While I don’t believe in any of the organized religions, I think there is a lot more to the universe than what we can perceived during our 4 scores or so as humans. With these two ideas in mind, it’s easier for me to let go and enjoy the moment.

      Reply
  8. Bud

    The article implicitly seems to concede that the game is over and the “protecting mental health” portion is really about adaptation not about actually addressing climate change. I mean addressing the “mental health” issues isn’t coming about from dealing with the enormous changes in how economies function or how resources are being used, or how societies are organized, etc. – i.e., actually solving the global warming problem. The article’s not really about changing the direction of the car away from the cliff or slowing down. It seems to assume that the problems largely won’t be solved and the mental health portion is about bracing for impact.

    I know that the purpose of the article was to address the mental health components, but the article reminded me of the Financial Times Climate Game I played years ago. The game basically puts you in the position of a global climate “minister” (i.e., a dictator). Your job is to make decisions to keep the temperatures below 1.5C. The game is here: https://ig.ft.com/climate-game/

    If the Climate Game was anywhere near within the ballpark of the changes that would be required to reduce rising emissions and the temperatures rise accordingly, then the overall game of meeting targets at least in a smart way really is over. And the best case scenario as I’m reading things, is that the models are drastically wrong and things don’t turn out as badly as expected. It’s the “hope strategy” because right now there doesn’t seem to be much else for everyday people.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, thanks for making your introductory comment crisply. I should have made that observation.

      It follows that people should focus on building skills and relationships to better navigate coming hard times. Building skills in particular would give a focus for action.

      Reply
  9. Wukchumni

    It has been a few years between the 2020 Castle Complex Fire and the 2021 KNP Fire, with the latter being centered in Sequoia NP, and I mourn the losses of Giant Sequoias which managed to live for thousands of years where lightning strike fires came and went every summer on their own accord, never harming the untouchables, that is until our actions the past century considered every wildfire a danger and not an asset, thus they must be put out immediately, if not sooner!

    So began the big buildup of duff, many of the burned areas in the 250k acres had no history of fire, imagine 75-100 years of accumulation of burnables on the ground?

    In terms of mere mortal stuff in Mother Nature’s Realm, on the drive up to the Giant Forest on the Generals Highway, the entire right hand side going up to high ridges was burnt to a crisp, and i’d daresay that visitors to the NP with no knowledge of what went down, would have no idea that anything happened, quick growing ground cover spread so quick, yowza!

    Kind of wish we’d done more exploring of burnt areas with ridiculously easy access, it isn’t like that anymore with lotsa new growth in your way.

    I live within nature pretty much with a minimum of concrete & asphalt and a maximum of native plants and trees, and over 20 years to watch the suffering on account of climate change has been pretty educational…

    In the 2012-16 drought, live oaks and manzanita trees died first, with everything else going dormant and surviving the big dry mostly, with a number of blue oaks expiring late in the game.

    These were all trees a few hundred years old, and never watered by the hand of man. It hurts to see them go on my watch.

    About 75 out of 425 trees kicked the bucket the past 19 years on the all cats and no cattle ranch…

    Reply
    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      How often did the Wukchumnis burn off the duff with their managed burns in order to prevent the buildup of duff to hyper-flammable hyper-destructive levels?

      Are there enough California Indians still living who still retain the knowledge of controlled burn management to enable California to over time restore a Controlled Burn 2.0 regime all over the relevant parts of wooded California, if California were to swallow its pride and adopt these methods carefully over time in line with today’s reality?

      Reply

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