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Climate Change and Mental Health

What is Climate Change?

Climate change is the long term shift in climate and weather as a direct result of human actions. You may have begun to notice less snow in the winters, more frequent and intense wildfires, hotter summers, more intense storms like hurricanes and tornadoes. All of these are extreme weather events or directly related to weather and climate change.

In the last few years, climate change has started affecting more and more people and communities. Even while activists, people with lived experience, and scientists have been ringing alarm bells for decades, there have not been enough mitigation measures put in place to reverse the anthropogenic sources of climate change.

The intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), a group of scientists organized by the United Nations, comes together every few years to write a report on the status of climate change. In the most recent report, they named that at this point some aspects of climate change are unavoidable and inevitable but they can be limited by major rapid changes in greenhouse gas emissions. Many people are aware of the climate clock, which measures the estimated amount of time we have left before climate change becomes irreversible. As it stands in 2024, there are just over 5 years left on this clock. 

What is the Link between Climate Change and Mental Health?

When it comes to climate change there are both indirect and direct impacts on human health, including mental health (IPCC). The IPCC has discussed how, as climate change continues to worsen, we will need to learn to adapt to counteract the harmful health effects.

Direct Effects on Mental Health

The direct effects of mental health are usually those that immediately impact an individual. Often these come from extreme weather events (EWEs) which can lead to direct physical and emotional trauma. EWEs, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, heat waves, etc can lead to death, disablement, and displacement of individuals and populations. This can lead to multiple mental health effects such as PTSD, depression, or grief from experiencing or witnessing harm to oneself or others. 

  • Extreme heat can trigger cardiac events and mental health events, such as depression, anxiety, and even increased rates of suicide. Additionally, extreme heat can be uncomfortable or harmful for those with sensory sensitivities and those that take certain medications, as heat can impact the effectiveness or side effects of some medications, including those who take psychiatric medications.
  • Wildfires expose people to smoke and heat. Breathing in smoke can lead to asthma attacks or migraines and the heat combined with the smoke can impact sleep quality. These stressors can lead to anxiety during and after wildfire events.

Indirect Effects on Mental Health

Additionally, there are downstream mental health effects related to climate change.

  • Changing weather patterns have had a significant effect on food sources and financial stability. Weather averages shifting across continents can impact the types and amounts of food that are able to be grown. Droughts and floods can kill the crops that have been planted. Additionally, the extreme oscillation of temperatures can impact the natural cycles of crops and fruiting trees, preventing them from reaching maturation and providing food. Hunger and financial instability are traumatic and can impact mental health.
  • Increases in intimate partner violence and gender based violence have been linked to climate change. These are also traumatic and can manifest in mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
  • Depression and hopelessness that can stem from houselessness or becoming a climate refugee. 

While everyone is affected by climate change, the nature and severity of the impact worsens amongst marginalized groups. Individuals and communities who are more privileged along lines such as race, class, and ability have more resources that allow them to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Since the cause of climate change lands on anthropogenic causes such as pollution and overconsumption from the upper class, this same group makes the policy decisions that disproportionately harm marginalized people. Being abandoned or even consciously harmed by your own government is also a trauma and also leads to downstream mental health consequences.

Let's use Hurricane Katrina as a case example. Before Hurricane Katrina, the area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was mainly populated by low-income Black people. Due to governmental environmental racism, this area was also highly polluted and had the nickname “Cancer Alley,” thus disabling much of this population. There were also storms that majorly affected the people who lived in New Orleans and budget cuts prevented necessary improvements to life saving mitigations, such as levees. After the storm hit, the people of New Orleans were abandoned by the government; instead of being met with adequate aid and resources, the government sent police who actively harmed survivors. Nearly 2000 people were killed and thousands of people were displaced most of which being impoverished Black people. Many of the individuals developed PTSD after the storm and this still affects some of the survivors to this day. This was an extreme weather event whose impact was almost entirely preventable. 

How might a person or community be affected by climate change?

1. Climate Anxiety

Anxiety itself is an evolutionary reaction humans have developed as a way to approach threats and keep ourselves safe. In that vein, worrying about climate change is actually a good thing; it is rational and adaptive because climate change is a major threat to the safety of individuals and communities all over the world. However, climate anxiety is distress and uncontrollable worry relating to climate change, and it becomes detrimental when we are unable to cope with reality. A non-exhaustive list of examples might look like: 

  • Avoiding our feelings around climate change or dissociating
  • Denial
  • Hopelessness or feeling out of control
  • Stuck or misdirected anger
  • Guilt or shame

It is important to note that climate anxiety is experienced differently by people who are privileged. Black and brown communities, disabled people, queer and trans people, poor women and children all over the world, and especially the global south, are currently bearing the brunt of climate change, even though they contribute the least to the factors that cause and worsen it. These groups of people have no choice but to be aware and adapt to the current reality in order to survive. It is always reasonable and justified to feel worry and fear when your community is at risk of more frequent and intense EWEs, food scarcity, or increased rates of gender based violence. In these cases, the anxiety is not about what could happen, but what is currently happening. For privileged people, namely white, financially secure, abled-bodied people in the Global North it is important to question where their climate anxiety is coming from, for example, does the distress stem from wanting to continue to live life as “normal” and do coping mechanisms serve that desire, for example distracting themself from reality or even harming marginalized people through misdirected anger and blame? This is why it is important to center the lived experiences of those who are experiencing the worst effects of climate change; it benefits everyone.

2. Climate grief

Similarly to fear and worry about climate change, climate grief can also be a reasonable and rational response. Climate grief is also a form of disenfranchised grief, meaning that they are less accepted as a reason to grieve and there are fewer supports for a person going through this process. Earlier it was discussed that climate change can lead to death, disablement, and displacement. These are all things that we grieve, from loved ones who may have passed due to an extreme weather event to grief around the ways disability has changed bodily functions to the loss of culture and community one might experience from having to leave their home. Even further, this grief can stem from anticipating or understanding the changes that will come due to climate change. You might be experiencing climate grief if feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness, despair come up when you think about the traumatic physical effects of climate change on other people and the environment, or the loss of culture, knowledge systems, identities, and communities. Climate grief is not something to be fixed, rather managing these emotions involves acceptance.

3. Ecofascism and “Us VS Them”

While we may feel hopeless, anxious, and frustrated with the state of climate change, it is important to not lean into eco-fascism. Ecofascist talking points are ones that lead with violence and devalue the lives of others, usually marginalized people, in pursuit of environmentalism. One famous example is the myth of overpopulation. Black and brown people in the global south and “overpopulation” are not the cause of climate change. In fact, the richest 1% of the population pollutes as much as two-thirds of the entire world population. Another example that has led to policy changes that harm disabled people is the movement against single use plastic, the most well known version of this being the plastic straw bans. While those who are able should be doing their part to consume less single-use plastic, creating blanket policies that target a vulnerable population and make it harder for many disabled people to get accessibility aids is harmful. This is not a way to achieve justice or liberation.

Human beings as a species are part of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Earth. Indigenous people throughout history and the world have been, and still are, stewards of the Earth. All people, including people of color, queer and trans people, disabled people, children, and all other identities, are part of the natural biodiversity of the earth. Ecofascism does not want us to think that way, it seeks to separate us from building communities that care for one another. Reminding ourselves that we are not alone and that we all belong and deserve to be alive on the Earth when we are experiencing hopelessness or climate grief can be a way that we cope and find community.

How can we combat mental health concerns related to climate change?

1. Allow yourself to feel your feelings

Directly confronting the reality of climate change can lead to feelings of hopelessness, depression, and anxiety about the future, our safety, and the wellbeing of generations that come after us. When this happens, avoidance may be a way some may cope with these feelings. Avoidance can look like over distracting oneself, engaging in excess substance or alcohol use, isolating from community, choosing not to read the news, or rumination. Avoidance can be a way for individuals to cope with uncomfortable emotions for a moment and can be adaptive in the short term. However, avoidance in the long term can be more harmful than helpful.

To combat this, allow yourself to feel your feelings. This may be easier said than done at times but it is alright to take small steps. Start with observing your body and the sensations that may come up. Going from the bottom of your body to the top, notice areas of tension, and other sensations that are associated with how you’re feeling. Next, start naming your emotions. A feeling wheel is a great tool to use for this step. Once you are able to identify and name your feelings, try to figure out what that emotion might be telling you. Is it possible that there is a need not being met? Finally, allow yourself to let the feeling go and ground yourself. Mindfulness can be a useful skill to practice to help attune yourself to your bodily sensations and emotions.

2. Do research on what other people have been doing to address climate change

When feeling hopeless, it can be valuable to look into the work that has been done already. Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, Queer and disabled people throughout the world have been leading the charge on implementing mitigation and adaptation strategies to combat climate change in their communities. You do not have to stop at just reading about what others have done either. Engaging in community action can be a practical way to address feelings of hopelessness or lack of control. Look into local organizations that support climate justice and, if you have the ability, try volunteering time or resources.

When thinking about taking action, one example sticks out. You may have noticed that a once major topic, the ozone layer and the Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the gasses that led to the hole in the ozone layer, are not really spoken about anymore. That is because activism and policy changes worked. In the late 1980s, nearly 200 countries came together and signed the Montreal Protocol which phased out CFCs; this has effectively been shrinking the hole in the ozone layer and is projected to be fully closed by 2050. This is widely considered to be the most successful global environmental action. While activism and policy change today around climate change are getting less governmental sign offs, this can be held as a reminder that widespread change is possible and that we should not discount the ways activists and organizers are adapting to climate change in their communities.

3. Integrate yourself into your community 

Climate change and capitalism are both effectively destabilizing communities. When we are isolated from our communities, coping becomes more difficult. We can feel alone in our grief or hopeless for the future. One of the most important factors for our well-being as humans is having social support. Being in community with people who care, share values and can be counted on for support can help combat the mental health concerns associated with climate change.

Find local climate cafes where individuals in your communities are already having these conversations and being vulnerable about the complex feelings we have relating to climate change. Engage in grief rituals with people in your local, cultural, and/or religious communities. Attend climate centered book clubs and continue to educate yourself and others on this topic.

Community does not have to be local either, virtual communities are often accessible to wider groups of people and are also major sources of support for people impacted by climate disaster. One such example is the west coast wildfires that have worsened over the last few years. These wildfires have already killed thousands and will cause long term health impacts in millions more. As a result, disabled people on the west coast have been creating mutual aid networks where they can send air purifiers, masks, and other resources to those affected. This sharing of resources and information directly saves lives and offers a tangible adaptation to climate change that individuals and communities put in place when those in power will not.

4. Acceptance

Acceptance brings together many of the threads that have already been discussed. Acceptance in climate change does not mean giving into futility and the inevitability of ecological disaster. Rather, it is the acceptance of what we cannot change and the ability to allow ourselves to adapt to a changing world. With acceptance we can allow ourselves to fully feel our emotions and acknowledge that grief and anxiety due to climate change is normal, yet still be able to move forward. We can recognize that with climate change, community actions go further than individual ones, and that being a part of mutual aid networks is a radical act of resistance. And finally, we can accept that even if, or when, the climate clock runs out, there will still be people and communities working to grieve, survive, and live together.

Further Reading and References: