As climate change drives extreme events and long-term changes to Earth’s environment, the physical impacts on human health – deaths caused by high temperatures, respiratory illnesses brought about by wildfire smoke, and more – are on the rise. But anxiety, stress, and other mental health impacts of these changes are harder to track.
Still, as extreme weather events accelerate and people around the world become more aware of the planet’s climate future, researchers and health professionals are documenting an uptick in associated mental health stress. This finding includes anxiety about what the future may look like, depression in the face of real or expected losses of life or homes, and despair as individuals observe a lack of action by political leaders. Unsurprisingly, research shows these mental health impacts disproportionately affect marginalized communities, such as Indigenous populations and low-income communities of color.
Tackling climate change requires transformation of behaviors and of the economy, but this level of change can be achieved only through political pressure from a critical mass of individuals and communities spanning demographics, socio-economic status, and geographies. Achieving and sustaining that level of action requires that a majority of those people not be incapacitated by climate anxiety or despair.
Studies show that empowering people provides one of the best tools for coping with these mental health stresses. In particular, taking action can make the difference between a person’s feeling passively hopeful for a different future or actively hopeful in ways that fuel progress toward achieving that future. But providing supportive services requires a better understanding of climate change’s effects on the mental health of all people, especially of those on the frontlines of climate change. This more inclusive research needs to start now so mental health resources are in place to support people and communities in advance of further escalation of climate impacts.
Understanding climate change/mental health links
The human mind and the natural environment are both intricate systems, and understanding how the two interact poses substantial challenges. To improve mental health outcomes related to climate change, researchers seek to better understand the specific causes of associated mental health stress. For example, do people become depressed because of climate change, or does pre-existing depression worsen concerns about the changing climate?
With many conditions to study (for instance, anxiety, aggression, insomnia, substance abuse, and suicide) and countless variables to consider, such as pre-existing mental health conditions, demographics, and culture or religion, researchers are attempting to tease out the dynamics. Furthermore, these impacts to mental health can occur in varying ways. For example, anxiety can manifest through worries about a loved one’s safety, a challenge to self-identity, or a loss of valued places, livelihood, and people. Each of these pathways can trigger different mental health impacts, and grasping the differences is central to determining causes and treatments.
The timescale of impacts varies also, further complicating research assessments. Impacts can be direct – for example, heat waves can lead to immediate, direct mental health effects including higher rates of aggression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, or mania. Or they can occur indirectly over a longer timeframe. Near-term indirect impacts occur when a climate event triggers a stressful disruption, such as loss of life or home in a flood or fire, that can lead to anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Others, such as impacts on those forced to migrate permanently as sea levels rise, can lead to long-term indirect psychological effects. These stresses can even become generational as mental illness has lasting influences on families and communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic deepens this complexity, and recent research has shown that the separate stressors arising from the pandemic and from climate change amplify one another. As researchers continue to tease out specific causes and consequences of stress, their research itself needs to be diversified to gain a more complete understanding of effects on different populations.
Disproportionate effects for Indigenous and marginalized populations
Most research on the links between climate change and mental health has centered on people of western European descent. In reality, however, Indigenous people and those in marginalized communities bear a disproportionate burden of significant mental health impacts.
One reason for this disparity is that marginalized communities experience the first and worst climate impacts. In urban areas, for instance, under-investment has produced neighborhoods with more concrete, fewer trees, and in closer proximity to polluting facilities. This reality leads to differences in climate impacts – for example, extreme heat in U.S. cities matches closely with historically redlined areas. Globally, this pattern is reflected in multiple ways, such as worsening impacts of storms on island nations lacking resources to fortify homes or rebuild in the face of devastation.
Not only do the impacts of extreme events exacerbate mental illnesses and socio-economic divides, but Indigenous and marginalized communities often have fewer resources to address impacts they face, and less access to political decision-making. The compounding dynamic of more significant impacts and less power to create change will continue to increase the mental health gap if not addressed.
These stressors are compounded for Indigenous peoples around the world, many of whom have cultures inextricably tied to the land. Near- and long-term degradation of the climate and environment deeply affect cultural and psychological well-being in these communities.
Intergenerational trauma resulting from colonization, forced relocation, and assimilation is amplified by anticipation of further loss of ancestral homelands and practices. Research on communities in the Circumpolar North confirms that climate-change-driven disturbances to land, traditional food sources, and mobility affect cultural practices and erode mental well-being.
As the climate challenges mount to threaten traditional livelihoods, more significant, and more effective mental health resources must be directed to Indigenous communities. However, because of the history of colonization and forced assimilation, these services must be culturally sensitive, tailored to fit the needs of the communities they aim to serve.
For marginalized communities, mental health services must not contribute to further cultural losses. Top-down approaches risk creating more harm by forcing new modes of cultural assimilation. Instead, solutions should be driven by communities and must support traditional knowledge – the supportive mental health practices that have been passed down through generations.
Many Indigenous communities use strong social and cultural ties to maintain mental health and well-being, including those in Australia and the Circumpolar North. These strong social structures have enabled Indigenous peoples to adapt to harsh environmental changes.
Because the legacy of colonialism has compromised this capacity and Indigenous peoples have often been forcibly relocated to difficult-to-access and under-resourced areas, researchers argue that higher-than-average rates of financial support per person are needed. Mental health support should have a focus on maintaining and rejuvenating a community’s resilient social structure. Importantly, this approach includes financial resources to address socio-economic disparities and to support investments in resilience to adapt to severe impacts of climate change.
With these lessons in tow, further research and solutions must involve broader representation among mental health researchers, authors, subjects, and case studies. More diverse researchers will bring additional perspectives to this research, and more diverse study populations will ensure that impacts are well understood for those most affected. Marginalized communities should be treated as partners in co-creating early interventions and addressing existing shortcomings in mental health services. This work needs to start now, to ensure that supportive structures are in place as climate change accelerates and worsens.