We already know that climate change comes with major public health implications, like the spread of disease as climate refugees flee their homelands and live in close-packed conditions with inadequate sanitation. What we’re now growing to understand is that this includes not just physical, but also mental health. If world governments don’t rise to the challenge, they could face a human-made mental health crisis at a very large scale.
On the most superficial level, the connection is probably pretty easy to make: Climate change can create stress, which can exacerbate or trigger mental health problems. In addition to depression, people may experience anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and a variety of other intense emotional responses to changing conditions.
In 2017, severe hurricanes highlighted the fact that surviving a major storm can leave people with a significant psychological legacy. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for example, people developed anxiety, PTSD and survivor’s guilt in response to living through the historic storm. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico — which had a poor public health infrastructure before Hurricane Maria — the psychological challenges posed by survival also took a heavy toll. Katrina, too, left a wave of mental health problems in its wake.
It’s not just storms or severe flooding that comes at a cost, though. Climate change can cause extreme heat, which may increase stress and aggression. It can also contribute to drought, with some researchers arguing that the wave of farmer suicides in India may be connected to climate change. When your livelihood is closely connected with the environment around you, changes to that environment can be devastating — especially when it’s also tied to your personal or cultural identity.
Even in developed nations with good infrastructure, treating people who suffer from the psychological aftermath of traumatic climate events can be challenging. In Australia, for example, farmers are reluctant to acknowledge or talk about climate change, even as they discuss its effects, and this can hinder efforts to provide them with the care they need. Especially in the aftermath of a major event, like Sandy, it can be difficult to get psychiatric services up and running again to handle the volume of patients that may emerge after the stormwaters recede.
Because low-income communities are often more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, managing mental health may be even more challenging. Residents may lack insurance coverage or the ability to pay privately for care, while stretched public health resources often struggle to reach everyone who needs help.
A failure to recognize and address community-wide mental health challenges can expose people to increased risks — even when simple steps, like identifying at-risk students in school and providing psychological screening for people receiving benefits, could help communities care for their own.
But when it comes to under-resourced regions — like Puerto Rico — or countries, the mental health challenges of climate change are even scarier. Communities in dire need of mental health services may not be able to obtain them even in the best of possible conditions. And when communities are faced with climate challenges, it can be nearly impossible to meet everyone’s needs. People with existing mental health conditions may have unstable access to care, while those with emergent problems in the wake of major natural disasters may be left out in the cold.
There’s a long history of viewing mental health and physical health of two separate issues — and of regarding psychological implications of major events as “less serious.” But that would be a mistake in the case of climate change, which is taking a tremendous mental toll. Governments should be collaborating to explore what works, what doesn’t and how to get resources to the neediest communities.