Climate change and mental health
A warming world can literally drive you crazy
These great disruptions affect people’s health. I have written before about how, in Tamil Nadu, a province in southern India, increased heat and precipitation caused by climate change is increasing childhood diarrhea. Other areas of the world are also experiencing adverse effects to health because of global heating.
Research shows that climate change is also affecting our mental health. A team of researchers recently looked at the literature of mental health in a warmer world and published their results in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Of all the studies on climate and mental health, the most commonly examined factor was, you guessed it, heat, along with humidity and rainfall. Most of the studies found that poor mental health was associated with increases in temperature. One study in Australia that looked at children from ages six through eleven found that boys cut down their participation in organized physical activities when the average daily maximum temperatures were hotter, leading to worsening mental health for the boys. (Girls did not have the same problem.)
Studies in Thailand, Bangladesh, and India found that adults suffer from living and working as the climate warms. In Bangladesh, climate change increased the possibility of drug and alcohol use, increased family stress, amplified previous traumas, and increased thoughts of suicide.
Big surprise, scientists found that the increased droughts in Australia had farmers worried. Similarly, a study in the Northwest Territories of Canada found that the emotional rollercoaster of being evacuated because of wildfire—fear, stress, uncertainty, and feelings of isolation—had long-term mental health implications. The researchers—whose backgrounds varied from public health, to worker safety, to ecology—interviewed First Nation citizens who lived through the wildfire season of 2014, the worst wildfire season ever experienced in the Northwest Territories. In their paper, the researchers published excerpts of the interviews. One female participant had this to say about living through the wildfire season:
People still talk about the fire and how it affected them emotionally…. We’re still dealing with it, we still struggle with it…. We don’t know if we’re going to be hit with another fire again so it kind of stalls you from doing a lot of things and you can’t really go anywhere too far out of the community because you don’t know if the fire is going to come back or not.
The emotional toll on climate scientists
David Corn, writing in Mother Jones back in 2019, talked to the scientists on the front lines of the climate change disaster. The scientists expressed deep sadness and mourning. One climate scientist, triggered by the election of Donald Trump, described spiraling into a debilitating depression that had her unable to to get out of bed. She recalled:
I had the firm belief that Washington would act on climate change and would be acting soon. When Trump was elected, it came crashing down. My most resounding thought was, how could my country do this? I had to face the fact that there was a veritable tidal wave of people who don’t care about climate change and who put personal interest above the body of scientific information that I had contributed to.
Other scientists described lost sleep, feeling overwhelmed, emotional exhaustion, grief, anxiety, even rage. Doctors and other caregivers are given training in dealing with grief, but that is not a subject that readily comes up for scientists. Seeking counseling, one meteorologist-turned-journalist, recounted that his therapist was unprepared for his predicament.
Oh, hotter new world that has such people in it
The therapist may have been flummoxed because psychiatrists and psychologists are unprepared for a warmer world as well. Just as the dawning of the modern age in the 17th and 18th centuries created a new emotional landscape, requiring the coinage of new terms such as nostalgia and ennui, a heating globe is creating a new type of emotional distress for the human population. Australian environmental researcher and philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to describe this very feeling of distress from seeing our environment despoiled.
Research going back over 15 years ago established the common sensical truism that being out in nature increases our well being. Hiking in pine forests, strolling along sandy beaches, wandering among chaparral, and hundreds of other outdoor activities make us all feel good. Yet I personally can attest to the unease that Albrecht describes as I’ve walked among stands of dead pines that have succumbed to drought and viewed invasive grasslands that have taken over once chaparral laden landscapes.
What do you think? Are people being too sensitive to the changes brought about by climate change? After all, David Corn found climate scientists who deal with the same bad new but nonetheless remain cheerful and optimistic. What are your experiences? have you seen changes to your environment from climate change? Have you experienced solastalgia?
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