Climate Change and Mental Health Connections
The impacts of climate change are familiar — more and more we see news about extreme weather events, droughts, water scarcity, wildfires, and flooding and their impacts on agriculture and human systems. The impact of these events on health and mental health is becoming clear. The air pollution and higher temperatures that come with rising greenhouse gases significantly increase the risk of neurological and psychiatric problems like strokes and dementia. Changes in the supply and nutritional content of food contribute to psychiatric illness, and changes in infectious disease patterns are exposing more people to the neuropsychiatric consequences of encephalitis.
Climate change can lead to job loss, force people to move, and harm social cohesion and community resources, all of which have mental health consequences. In addition, fear of the phenomenon of climate change and related consequences for our national security and individual well-being can cause significant distress.
A new vocabulary is developing to better name the effects of climate change on the human psyche (Cianconi). Ecological grief and eco-anxiety are terms describing the sense of loss or the anxiety people feel related to climate change, including the loss of a stable future (Panu). Solastalgia is a specific term coined to capture the nostalgia we can feel for a traditional way of life or childhood landscape destroyed by environmental changes (Albrecht). While eco-anxiety is a normal response to the climate emergency and does not usually rise to the level of clinical concern, it may shape views of society and the future, leading to anger, hopelessness, or paralysis, particularly in young people (Hickman). Activists and climate scientists may also experience emotional burnout and despair when progress towards sustainability falters (Malach).
Who is Affected by Climate Change?
Climate change disproportionately affects people in the Global South. In the United States, those living in poor physical environments or who have a lesser ability to access medical care and lesser power to effect political solutions for climate impacts on their neighborhoods have a greater burden of climate impacts. Children and young people, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with cognitive or mobility impairments, pregnant and postpartum women, people with mental illness may experience greater impact.
How Extreme Weather Events Affect Mental Health
The mental health consequences of single disasters for most people include mild stress and insomnia, high-risk coping behavior such as increased alcohol use, and mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Climate-related increase in global temperatures affects populations via circumscribed localized disasters, but also via long-term and often large-scale effects that come from experiencing repeated disasters and their effects on well-being, economic stability and infrastructure in a given region.
Resilience and Individual Actions Around Climate Distress
Many people feel an increased sense of security and control by taking action to understand, adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change at an individual and community level. Taking action to prepare for the effects of climate change can help “manage the emotional responses as people come to terms with — and adjust their understanding and lives in the context of — climate change.”(US GCRP)
Hear From APA's Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health
Below is one in a series of videos in which psychiatrists address how to talk about climate change, children's anxiety around the issue, and how extreme heat impacts your mental health. View more videos on climate change and mental health..
Elizabeth Haase, M.D.
Chair, APA Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health
Read more from the APA Blog
Addressing the Public Mental Health Challenge of Climate Change
Katherine Catalano, American Public Health Association
Elizabeth Haase, M.D., Chair, APA Committee on Climate Change
Helping Patients Cope with Emotional Reactions to Climate Change: Advice for Mental Health Clinicians
Elizabeth Haase, M.D.
Air Pollution’s Impact on Mental Health