Climate Impacts Amplify Mental Health Concerns

Climate Impacts Amplify Mental Health Concerns

More and more studies are emerging about the stress impacts of climate-related events on mental health and emotional wellness. The effects go far beyond what some dismiss as "doom scrolling" and are often ignored. Seattle, for example, is known for its gloomy, misty weather. But now, residents are also faced with a smoky fire season as climate change is intensifying droughts and supercharging wildfires. Other climate impacts for the Pacific Northwest city include a projected 3 feet of sea level rise, which will flood its most vulnerable neighborhoods. The experiences and future projections take a toll on the mental health of Seattle residents, especially those who are disproportionately experiencing extreme heat and air pollution.

"I talk about climate trauma because it’s traumatic, and not only with huge events and acute moments of extreme heat and flooding, but it’s also just living with it,” Emily Wright, professor and founder of the environmental justice organization We Become, told Crosscut. It just increases the baseline level of stress.”

Climate Central, May 25, 2022.

American Psychiatric Association: How Climate Change Impacts Your Mental Health, March 8, 2022.

Why This Matters

Climate change is shifting people’s daily lives, but availability and accessibility to mental health services remain limited overall -- let alone services specific to climate trauma. The World Health Organization has pointed to mental health as a priority as climate change rapidly advances. February’s IPCC report included mental health as part of its assessment, noting that the climate crisis can lead to emotional distress, anxiety, depression, grief, and suicidal behavior. In a 2020 survey, more than half of Americans said they felt anxious about climate change’s impact on their mental health.

"The impacts of climate change are increasingly part of our daily lives, and there is very little dedicated mental health support available for people and communities dealing with climate-related hazards and long-term risk,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Public Health and the Environment Department Director at WHO.

NBC News: 'Climate Anxiety’ Becoming The Next Mental Health Crisis in America’s Youth, April 26, 2022.

Real Stories: What Is Climate Anxiety? | Seat At The Table, May 12, 2022.

Recommendations From The WHO

Earlier this month, the WHO released a policy report, which lays out recommendations for countries to better address the intersection of climate change and mental health, including:

  • Integrate climate change considerations into policies and programs for mental health and psychological support
  • Integrate mental health and psychological support into climate policies and programs
  • Address the funding gaps for both mental health programs overall and climate-specific ones

Mental health receives less than 1% of international aid for health, while national governments spend around 2% of their health budgets on mental health. But that doesn’t mean they’re actually saving money because lost productivity due to depression and anxiety costs the global economy an estimated $1 trillion annually. These policy changes can potentially address both individual lives, the global community, and the global economy. But since mental health is already underfunded, it will require strong commitment and investment to become a reality.

ABC News: Climate change’s impact on mental health, July 13, 2021.

Washington Post: Overcoming climate anxiety could be the secret to real change, April 22, 2021.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Climate Change and Mental Health, May 12, 2021.