From post-disaster traumas to anxiety about the future, people around the world are dealing with the impacts of climate change and its effects on mental health
There are two distinct but connected ways that climate change can affect mental health. First, people can experience psychological responses to direct exposure to the consequences of climate change, such as living through a disaster. The other way that climate change can affect mental health is through indirect exposure – such as watching a disaster unfold from afar or reading about a dire new scientific report.
Extreme weather is also linked to more subtle psychological effects. Research has shown that people are more likely to behave irritably, aggressively, and even violently when exposed to extreme heat. A study published in Nature in January 2020 found increased risk of death by suicide, particularly among men, is likely as temperatures warm. Additionally, researchers have found correlations between exposure to poor air air quality and increased risk of psychiatric outcomes including anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorder. But they’re still teasing out how and when polluted air might contribute to these forms of mental illness.
Indirect exposure to climate change can affect mental health
People do not have to live through a natural disaster to suffer the mental health consequences of climate change. Watching or reading about climate change and natural disasters on the news – or hearing from friends and family members who are experiencing extreme weather – can cause anxiety, depression, secondary trauma, and other psychological conditions.
Those distress reactions may fade and heal with time. But they also may worsen if not acknowledged and treated and can lead to significant and prolonged mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and thoughts of suicide. According to a report from the American Public Health Association and ecoAmerica, up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffer depression after a natural disaster.
Climate change, driven by our reliance on fossil fuels, is leading to more frequent and intense natural disasters, which may increase a child’s risk of having depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Air pollution from burning fossil fuels has also been linked to children experiencing more symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Children are more impacted by disasters than adults and are more likely to have continued trauma-related symptoms after a disaster. Disruptions in routine, separation from caregivers as a result of evacuations or displacement, and parental stress after a disaster all contribute to children’s distress. Children are often very resilient and reactions to disasters may resolve over time, but they should be monitored for long-term effects of chronic stress related to extreme weather events.
For instance, one study following 400 young people (8-16 years old) directly affected by Hurricane Katrina found:
About 25% of the youth suffered from PTSD but most symptoms had declined by the end of the study (2 years after the hurricane hit)
A small number of youth had persistent PTSD symptoms 2 years after the hurricane
Burning fossil fuels (for example, from power plants, cars, and trucks) produces carbon pollution that drives climate change as well as other air pollutants, such as particulate matter, that have been found to contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety in children.
Climate change can feel overwhelming, but the good news is that we have solutions that can improve the health of your child and children all over the world. The same actions we take to curb climate change also have immediate health benefits.
Here are simple steps you can take:
- Plant trees and other vegetation where you live and encourage your community to do the same. Plants not only can soak up the air pollution that has been linked to worsening mental health, they can also cool down the temperature which may affect the risk of violence in communities. Recent research has also shown that children who grow up in communities with more green space may have much lower rates of mental health disorders.
- Choose walking, biking, or public transit whenever possible, and consider carpooling. If you are buying a car, choose an electric car or find one with better fuel economy. The more gas a car burns per mile, the more harmful air pollution it generates. Getting exercise may also help improve a child’s mental health.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle. A timeless piece of advice. The more we buy new, the greater our carbon footprint.
- Invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Ask your local leaders to invest in renewable energy in public buildings, and support building regulations that require solar panels and energy-saving policies for new buildings. Conserving energy saves money and reduces carbon dioxide and other air pollution that matters to our children’s mental health.
- Start a conversation. Talk to your family and friends about climate change to make sure they know it’s a health issue, especially for our children, and that we need to work with everyone to take action to fight this climate crisis. Work with your place of worship and in your children’s school to see what you can do to spread the word and keep our kids healthy, and get involved in climate change planning at the state and local level.
- Get involved. Many towns and cities want to decarbonize—in fact they’re leading on this issue—and parents can play a role in shaping those efforts. Ask local leaders how your neighborhood can become safer and healthier by making it greener, more walkable and bike-friendly. You can ask decision makers to add green space by planting trees, increase access to public transit and invest in electric vehicle infrastructure. These actions will benefit everyone’s health and especially the health of our children.
Overall, as the effects of climate change become increasingly present in daily life, having reliable networks and tools to turn to when feeling distressed becomes more and more imperative.