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COP26: A Critical Juncture on Climate Change and Global Mental Health

     

All eyes are on the global leaders who are convening in Glasgow at COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, to focus on strategies for cutting carbon emissions across the world. The risks and ongoing impacts of climate change are clear, summarized by The American Psychiatric Association’s position statement on the subject: “climate change poses a threat to public health, including mental health.”

If world leaders come to an agreement that leads to tangible results, they will save lives.

Recent studies continue to call attention to the health damage of climate change to date:

  • The 2021 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: code red for a healthy future” was produced by leading researchers at 43 academic institutions worldwide and analyzes 44 different indicators of climate change related-health impacts. This year’s report references an “unabated rise” in these impacts and expresses that, even as the globe faces a crisis, there is an “unprecedented opportunity to ensure a healthy future for all” if the right actions are taken.
  • Early in October, 23 federal agencies issued reports outlining “the steps each agency will take to ensure their facilities and operations adapt to and are increasingly resilient to climate change impacts.” The preface of the Department of Health and Human Services’ plan, notes that, “Severe and repeated weather-related disasters also contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health impacts.” The plan includes steps the agency will take to protect Americans from climate-change related threats.
  • Extensive research shows that increased violence emerges with higher temperatures, including a study that predicted 22,000 murders, 180,000 rapes, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, and over 4 million other non-violent crimes in excess of what would be expected at current temperatures by the end of this century (Hsiang et al., 2013, Ranson, 2014). Heat also worsens our suicide rates, to a degree that is expected to wipe out the gains of all current suicide prevention programs if unabated (Burke et al., 2018). Each of these events comes with significant long-term traumatic effects on mental health of those affected, particularly for children, also the heirs to our climate catastrophe.
  • A recent Psychiatric Services in Advance article emphasizes that these mental health impacts of climate change will increase the demand on the mental health workforce, possibly overwhelming our systems capacity to respond. It addresses concrete steps the psychiatric workforce must take to prepare for growing mental health needs associated with climate change.

Climate change is one of the areas under study this year by the APA Presidential Task Force on Social Determinants of Mental Health, which will produce tools for action, specifically programs and policy aimed at improving the social and environmental well-being of patients, the public, and psychiatrists. The APA’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance are also calling attention to climate mental health issues by providing public education, policy recommendations, research, and climate solutions.

This work must proceed at a rate that challenges the human capacity for change. But events such as World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic have also shown that humans have the ability to make change this rapid when they are confronted with an emergency they can understand. Given the climate emergency humanity is now faced with, COP26 illustrates an opportunity to make those changes.

References:

Burke, M., González, F., Baylis, P., Heft-Neal, S., Baysan, C., Basu, S., & Hsiang, S. (2018). Higher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and Mexico. Nature Climate Change, 8(8), 723–729.

Hsiang, S. M., Burke, M., & Miguel, E. (2013). Quantifying the influence of climate on human conflict. Science (New York, N.Y.), 341(6151), 1235367. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1235367

Ranson, M. (2014). Crime, weather, and climate change. J. Environ. Econ. Manage, 67, 274–302.

     

 

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