The Mental Health Toll of Climate Change Could Be Dire

Climate change isn't just causing extreme weather events, says a report co-authored by the American Psychological Association. It's also causing trauma and post-traumatic stress.

Climate change is making us mentally unhinged — and not because of the stress we might endure when squabbling with a family member or co-worker about its causes or possible solutions.

Global warming is already bringing about more extreme weather events, like powerful storms, which can cause devastating inland flooding or transform coastal communities into heaps of wreckage. The death, displacement, and personal injury brought about disasters are traumatizing survivors in the immediate aftermath and leaving some with long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a report by the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, a nonprofit focused on climate change.

The study, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate, is a follow up to a 2014 report.

Susan Clayton, a psychologist at the College of Wooster and co-author of the new report, said people who have been through disasters often used terms like "terrified" when describing what happened.

"So not surprisingly negative experience is a common denominator for the people who have been through this," she said. “And estimates between seven and 40 percent of people who are experiencing natural disasters have some sort of mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression.”

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled among a sample of people affected by the disaster, says the report. One in six of them showed signs of PTSD and 49 percent developed anxiety or mood disorders, like depression.

But not only are discrete, acute disasters taking a toll, chronic, slow-onset events, such as droughts, are also causing mental anguish, the researchers said.

Farmers might see their livelihoods threatened by year after year of withered crops or fallowed fields, which can cause feelings of helplessness or fear, as well as a loss of autonomy or a sense of identity on an individual level. Persistent climate-related losses can force entire communities to switch vocations or migrate.

In other words, the report suggests, an individual’s core sense of identity could be undermined due to climate change disasters, and the binds that hold societies together might be pushed to their breaking point.

"We know that the Syrian refugee crisis is partly attributable to climate change, to drought in the area,” said Clayton. "And when you have to leave your home that can of course be stressful. It also disrupts the community. People don’t tend to move all at once. They disperse and those social connections are an important source of strength that can protect your mental wellbeing.”

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Clayton said a robust amount of research has been conducted on the mental health impacts of acute disasters, and since the last report interest is growing in the slow-onset changes brought about by global warming.

"People are really beginning to take a look at the effects of those gradual changes," she said. "People are now beginning to asks the questions: How are farmers affected by changing climate conditions that interfere with their ability to farm? How are native communities affected by the need to abandon their home communities."

"Research proceeds very slowly," she added. "But I think those questions of the more long-term changes, sometimes indirect changes associated with climate change, are really beginning to get some research interest.”

The report was published just a day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at rolling back many of the Obama administration’s signature efforts on reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.

Clayton views the White House move as a setback — and an opportunity.

"This suppresses conversation and leads to more ignorance, potentially," Clayton said. "On the other hand, I try to be an optimist. I think there could be positive outcomes because this might lead some people who normally, kind of passively, accept climate change, but don’t really do anything about it to become more actively involved in advocating for more government attention to the issue.”

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