From post-disaster traumas to anxiety about the future, people around the world are grappling with the impacts of climate change on mental health – so much so that the term “eco-anxiety” has gained popularity in the last few years.
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.
When disaster strikes your community
Dr. Joshua Morganstein is the assistant chair of the department of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. Morganstein specializes in disaster mental health and helped write the “Mental Health and Well-Being” chapter of the 2016 Climate and Health Assessment, a sweeping scientific assessment of the health effects of climate change. Morganstein said that after a disaster, the most common psychological responses are “distress reactions,” such as insomnia, scapegoating, irritability, risky behaviors like substance abuse, and losing interest in normal activities.
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.
“The goal is really to alter the trajectory of how people are doing afterwards, so that we decrease people’s distress, increase their well-being and improve their functioning in all domains of life, and hopefully reduce the likelihood of developing psychological disorders,” Morganstein said in an interview with Yale Climate Connections.
Disasters affect individuals’ mental health differently. But certain factors make people more vulnerable to suffering from psychological impacts of natural disasters. In particular, Morganstein said, people with lower socio-economic status are more likely to live in risk-prone areas and have less access to health care after a disaster.
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.
In an article published in September 2019, psychotherapist and author Linda Buzzell and psychology professor Craig Chalquist put together a glossary of sorts on eco-anxiety. In the article, they wrote that Chalquist prefers to refer to eco-anxiety as eco-fear, “because the first term implies a cause within the mind, whereas the second recognizes this fear to be a genuine and realistic response to outer crisis.”
Emotional responses to the threat of climate change are also common. In the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication report “Climate Change in the American Mind,” November 2019, 66% of those surveyed said they were at least somewhat worried about climate change. (Editor’s note: YPCCC is the publisher of this site.)
Certain groups, such as children and people with pre-existing psychological conditions, may be more at risk of experiencing negative mental health outcomes from indirect exposure to disasters and climate news. In a 2018 review of the psychological effects of climate change on children, Australian researchers found that climate change increases the risk of children developing PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse.
Those who spend a lot of time thinking about climate change, such as climate scientists, are also at risk. Buzzell said she worries about people whose work involves climate change, because of the near-constant exposure to the issue that it entails. And many people have limited experience in how to process fear, stress, and grief in a healthy way, she said.
How to take care of your mental health in a changing climate
“It’s pretty hard now to live on planet Earth and not have any clue that something’s happening that’s not good,” Buzzell said. But experts interviewed said people can learn how to process that exposure in a way that limits the damage to mental health.
1. Acknowledge how you are feeling and talk about it: Buzzell says an important first step is acknowledging that anxiety or fear is a perfectly normal response to climate change. It’s an emotion that many other people are feeling, too, so it’s helpful to treat it as a problem to be solved together.
“Because this is something that impacts us all collectively, it really isn’t something you can deal with on just an individual basis,” Buzzell said.
Connecting with your loved ones, neighbors, therapists and other health care providers, or even strangers to talk through the psychological impacts of climate change is critical. Rachel Malena-Chan created Eco-Anxious Stories, a project where people can submit stories related to climate anxieties, grief, powerlessness, and melancholy – and find tools to cope with those feelings.
“We experience this issue of the level of individual psychology, and so there’s stories to be wrestled with and mental health impacts to be unpacked there, but it’s also something that’s happening in our relationships to each other,” Malena-Chan said. “Normalizing this aspect of the problem, processing our emotions more publicly, can really help reduce a sense of isolation.”
Starting conversations about how climate change makes us feel can be difficult and should be rooted in active listening, Buzzell said. “You can’t know what breaks somebody else’s heart.”
She suggested questions like, “What have you noticed on the news about climate change that really struck you?” And even just, “What are you feeling? What’s on your mind?”
2. Strengthen your communities: In research conducted during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season in Florida, Morganstein and other researchers found that the communities with the highest levels of “community collective efficacy,” which is a way that researchers measure community strength, saw the lowest rates of mental distress after the storm. Ways to strengthen your local community include regularly reaching out to your neighbors, joining community organizations, and establishing relationships with local leaders. Morganstein also said that it’s helpful to have people trained in what is called Psychological First Aid, which is a framework for helping people cope in the aftermath of a disaster.
Communities aren’t just bound by geography and family connections, and online networks can be valuable in helping to process trauma, anxiety or other conditions. After wildfires and mudslides devastated her community in 2018, Buzzell saw value in the Good Grief Network – an online and in-person community of people learning to cope with “daunting systemic predicaments,” like climate change. Malena-Chan’s Eco-Anxious Stories also aims to create a space for people to come together online, and there are countless Facebook groups dedicated to eco-grief, eco-anxiety, climate-anxiety, and more. Connecting with people from a variety of places and experiences can offer beneficial new perspectives.
“One metaphor we use a lot in our work is the metaphor of climbing a mountain,” Malena-Chan said. “You’ve got to think about what’s in your backpack. What are you bringing to the table here on this climb, and what can you offer the group of climbers you’re with? And also what’s your lens? What’s your set of glasses on this problem or on the pathway that we’re taking? What informs that lens, and do you need to try on someone else’s glasses here for a second to really understand where we’re going?”
3. Take action: Morganstein said that taking pre-emptive actions can also provide healing benefits. That can mean creating family and work emergency plans so you feel prepared in the case of an emergency. And it can mean taking action to limit climate change.
Buzzell noted that when talking action, it’s important to protect yourself from burnout. She suggests spending more time outside in nature. She pointed to the work of environmental activist, author, and Buddhist Joanna Macy as a good framework to follow.
“She has a three-part prescription on how to live our lives while we’re going through what she calls the great turning, or the great unraveling as it seems to be,” Buzzell said. “Yes, you need to take action – and what she calls holding actions – resist the bad. So maybe you could join Extinction Rebellion. The second one is, basically, do something to create the world you want to live in. In my case that’s tending the backyard food forest. And then the third thing (Macy) recommends is: Raise your level of consciousness. And that could be getting more scientific information, or it could be doing some kind of consciousness practice like meditation or perhaps spending time by yourself alone out in nature.”
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.
“You’re supposed to feel something about this, and it’s rational to get in touch with our emotions,” Malena-Chan said.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, sad, or more, see this guide for information about mental health helplines and more from the National Alliance on Mental Health. If you’re experiencing an emergency, seek immediate care from health providers.