How is Climate Change Affecting our Mental Health?
The festive period is a time of high spirits and gift-giving, or at least as much of that as is possible in the midst of a global pandemic. But one thing that has stayed the same for me this year is my pervasive anxiety about the impact of this consumerist holiday on the environment.
For me, along with the awkwardness of receiving an unwanted gift comes the guilt over the carbon that was added to the atmosphere for the production and transportation of it. And while my family have made fun of me for desperately trying to save as much wrapping paper as possible, climate change is something which has worried many of us recently.
Feeling helpless, frustrated, anxious and depressed about climate change — also known as eco-anxiety — is becoming more commonplace. A 2019 survey by the American Psychological Foundation found that 68% of adults experience at least a little eco-anxiety. Even more so for younger age groups, with 47% of 18–34 year olds reporting that this stress affects their daily lives. In a previous blog, Ffion Harris spoke in depth about eco-anxiety, so be sure to give it a read if you want to learn more.
But this brought my attention to an often overlooked question: what effect is climate change having on our mental health?
As a psychology student, mental health has always been something that I care about deeply. And though I haven’t been much of an outdoorsy person until recently, over the last few years, climate change, and the impact it will have on our lives in the future, is an issue I have become very passionate about.
Though it’s not often spoken about, climate change can have a severe impact on mental health as well as physical health, and we see this most clearly today with extreme weather events such as the tragic wildfires in Australia last year, which the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia called “one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history”.
Even the United States has had its first climate refugees, as rising sea levels in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, have taken 98% of its land and the residents are being relocated. This is the first time that the US has used federal tax dollars to help a whole community that has been directly impacted by climate change.
Seeing the place that you grew up in get destroyed or losing it forever to the sea can be an incredibly traumatic experience. A report released by the White House in 2016 which reviewed the health impacts of climate change highlighted the mental health risk for many of those directly affected by climate disasters. It warned that a number may go on to develop disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and general anxiety.
Some people are at higher risk of these mental health outcomes than others, including the elderly, women (especially pregnant and post-partum women, which is the period after childbirth) and children. These disasters can destroy entire communities and the vital health infrastructure that they need, especially during such an emergency, posing a significant new challenge for psychiatry and mental health services over the years that we must prepare for.
But the stress and anxiety that is caused by the existential threat posed by climate change also has an impact on our mental wellbeing. While it’s not yet clear whether eco-anxiety can be considered a disorder — and research is still in the early stages — people have reported symptoms such as panic attacks, loss of appetite and insomnia. A U.S. study also found that perceived ecological stress predict depressive symptoms, suggesting that people are struggling to cope with the stress of climate change.
Psychiatrist Lise van Susteren describes it as a ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ likening it to the symptoms of PTSD but experienced in anticipation of the forthcoming trauma. She elaborates further that it should be considered a condition rather than a disorder, remarking that:
“given everything the scientists are telling us, given how late the hour is, and how grave the consequences, the abnormality now is not having a Pre-Traumatic Stress condition.” — LISE VAN SUSTEREN
This brings us to an important question about whether it is normal to experience eco-anxiety; the very question that led me on the journey of writing this in the first place.
My own mental and emotional wellbeing has certainly been impacted over the past few years by the threat of climate change and when no one else around you is panicking, you can feel a bit crazy.
But whenever I hear new reports about the awful situation that we’re in and how little is being done, panic seems like a rational response. After all, anxiety is adaptive. It helps us to foresee potential problems and motivates us to solve or avoid them. Therefore, a good long-term coping strategy is to solve the problem. But when you’re dealing with a problem so vast, that requires widescale societal action, there’s not much an individual can do.
So, is it normal, then, to feel powerless?
Being young and having my whole future ahead of me, I can’t help but worry about how climate change might impact that.
I’ve daydreamed about having a carbon neutral wedding, I’ve worried about feeding my future children during famines, I’ve even thought about moving somewhere high above sea-level so that my future grandchildren have ‘dibs’ and won’t become climate refugees. Of course, the reality of what happens to the planet in the future is still very much in our hands. But the lack of meaningful action when the risk is so great can be disheartening to say the least.
Sometimes it feels like I’m in a burning building and everyone around me is just going about their lives and I am the only one that is panicking. But through writing this, I surprisingly found myself feeling hopeful for the first time that I can remember.
I learned that I am not alone, and that others are feeling this way too. Even Greta Thunberg stopped eating and stopped going to school because it depressed her so much, something which she talks about in her TED talk. It’s what made her decide to start doing something about it.
And perhaps that’s exactly what we need for us to finally take action to stop damaging our environment. Greta ends her talk by refusing to offer hope. She comments on how hope has cushioned us and allowed us to believe that things will magically turn out okay, and that we need action first in order to inspire hope.
As the reality of what climate change really means starts to set in, it’s going to affect our mental and emotional wellbeing. But maybe we need to be scared before we actually do something. Maybe this anxiety that we’re feeling is exactly what we need to inspire action and to give us hope.
It’s important to recognise that climate change will affect each of us directly in many ways, including our mental wellbeing.
And so, as well as taking action to mitigate the damage caused, we need to build resilience in ourselves and in our communities in order to overcome this challenge. And we need to use this growing anxiety to push ourselves to action and towards hope.