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How Weather Events and Climate Change Are Affecting Mental Health

By Natasha Tracy  •   July 4, 2022

How Weather Events and Climate Change Are Affecting Mental Health

While most people are aware that extreme weather events and climate change are harming humanity on a global scale, many people aren’t aware that weather and climate change are also harming people’s mental health. And, unfortunately, after a climate-related disaster like a flood or wildfire, more mental health care is often needed but that’s exactly when a disruption in care occurs. According to Sherilee Harper, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in the link between climate change and health, climate change affects mental health in three ways. It affects mental health directly, when experiencing floods, heatwaves, and other disasters, it affects mental health indirectly when livelihoods are threatened, and it affects mental health even when people just watch climate disasters happening on the news. In short, extreme weather events and climate change can affect the mental health of anyone and, indeed, affects the mental health of society as a whole.

Whose Mental Health Is At-risk from Climate Change?

While anyone’s mental health can be affected by climate change events, there are people who are at greater risk. For example, those whose livelihood depends on weather, such as farmers, tend to have their mental health more adversely affected. Indigenous people, too, are known to be at higher risk for negative mental health affects due to climate change because they rely on ecosystems for food, culture and social ties.

Young people are increasingly facing an uncertain future, and this can negatively affect their mental health disproportionately. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report:

"Mental health challenges, including anxiety and stress, are expected to increase under further global warming in all assessed regions, particularly for children, adolescents, elderly and those with underlying health conditions."

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also notes that children are more likely to have continued trauma-related symptoms after a disaster. This can increase because of disruption in routine, separation from caregivers, or seeing caregiver distress due to a disaster. While children are known to be very resilient, it’s important to realize that some may still experience chronic stress.

The APA says the following about those at higher risk to the potential mental health impacts of climate change:

“. . . children, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with cognitive or mobility impairments, pregnant and postpartum women, and people with mental illness [are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change]. People of lower socioeconomic status, migrants, refugees and the homeless may also be more vulnerable.”

People with mental health conditions may find their conditions worsen due to climate change. This is because:

• Psychiatric medications can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate heat and their awareness that their body temperature is rising. This is associated with injury and death.

• People living with mental illness are also more likely to live in poverty.

• People living with mental illness are also more likely to have co-occurring substance use disorders.

• These people are more likely to be dependent upon service, infrastructure, and medication supply chains and these tend to be disrupted in extreme weather events.

Finally, it is not surprising that first responders, emergency workers, and other involved in responding to extreme weather events are also at a higher risk for negative mental health effects due to climate change. These people can also be exposed to injury and death in their line of work, and this can compound these effects.

What Parts of Climate Change Harm Mental Health?

The term “climate change” is somewhat vague but its effects are very real and specific. For example, all the following have been attributed to climate change:

• Floods – Can harm farmers and homeowners

• Heatwaves – Can harm those who work outside or those taking psychiatric medication

• Storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes – Can harm all those in their path, particularly in parts of the world that previously didn’t see such storm and thus are unprepared for them

• Wildfires – Can harm ecosystems and destroy entire communities

• Droughts – Can lead to food scarcity and food quality issues

• Coastal erosion – Can lead to the need for population migration

Experiencing Climate Change Affects Mental Health in the Following Ways

When climate change affects mental health, it can range from minimal stress and distress symptoms all the way to clinical disorders like anxiety, sleep disturbances, depression, posttraumatic stress, and even suicidal thoughts. Communities and individuals are left trying to deal with changes in the perceptions and experiences in everyday life, and having to cope, understand, and respond appropriately to climate change.

When an extreme weather event occurs, the effects on a person’s life can be even more severe. Effects can include loss of resources, loss of social support, loss of social networks, extensive relocation, all the way to loss of life. In these situations, more severe mental health effects are more likely to occur. According to “The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review” by Cianconi et al. these can include:

• Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Typically occurs after acute stress during and after a disaster is experienced

• Depression

• Generalized anxiety

• Increased substance abuse or misuse

• Suicidal thoughts

Additionally, for those with an existing mental health condition, climate change effect can exacerbate it dramatically in the wake of a disaster.

Heatwaves and Mental Health

It’s understood that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of heatwaves that are outside the norm for a given area. Heat stress caused by these heatwaves is associated with mood disorders, anxiety, and other consequences. As mentioned above, heat can be particularly problematic for people with mental illnesses as their medications may hamper their ability to regulate their body temperature or realize when their body temperature is rising. It is perhaps because of this that people with mental illness are three times more likely to run the risk of death from a heatwave than those without a mental illness.

The following people tend to be more at risk for negative anxiety and mood disorder effects during a heatwave:

• Women

• Young people

• People of lower socioeconomic status

Hostility and aggression also increase during heatwaves with hotter cities showing more violence than cooler cities. Alcohol is likely a factor in increasing aggression as people drink more in the heat. According to Cianconi et al., when a heatwave strikes on a weekend (when there tends to be more alcohol consumption), it results in a massive increase in shootings.

Even suicide rates rise with warming temperatures, especially in early summer heatwaves.

Floods and Mental Health

Flooding is a common form of climate-related disaster with floods leading to 53,000 deaths in the last decade. There are many deleterious effects to floods including:

• Direct effects to water like drowning, electrocution, cardiovascular events, nonfatal injuries, and exacerbation of chronic illness

• Waterborne diseases (due to contaminated drinking water)

• Infectious diseases

• Psychiatric and mental health disorders

Floods bring about the following consequences which are known to affect mental health:

• Mourning

• Displacement

• Psychosocial stress (due to the loss of lives and belongings)

The more severe the flood and the above effects, the more the worse the impact on mental health, sometimes leading to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an anxiety disorder.

According to Cianconi et al., when it comes to people who have lived through a flood:

• 20% were diagnosed with depression

• 28.3% were diagnosed with anxiety

• 36% were diagnosed with PTSD

And, of course, floods exacerbate people’s existing mental health concerns, in some cases leading to an increase in substance abuse and domestic violence.

The following people are at greater risk for experiencing a mental illness due to a flood:

• Women

• Young people

• The elderly

• Those with a disability

• Those who are part of an ethnic or linguistic minority

• Those living in a household with a female head

• Those with a lower level of schooling

• Those with limited resources (including those living in lower-income countries)

Even those people not residing near the flood can experience mental health effects and show high levels of PTSD perhaps because they still experience a disruption in community cohesion.

Droughts and Mental Health

Droughts are now known to last longer and longer because of climate change. Droughts, of course, are related to agricultural loss due to a reduction in crop productivity and yield which, in turn, leads to a decrease in economic growth. This causes long-term economic disadvantage and promotes political instability and conflicts.

As noted above, farmers all over the world are vulnerable to negative mental health effects due to climate change. The effects on farmers and others affected by droughts can include:

• Depression

• Demoralization

• Fatalism

• Passively resigning to fate (especially in women and adolescents or people with lower socioeconomic status)

• Feelings of distress and helplessness

Drought is even connected to suicide especially in older people. This may be because of the way these negative events cause the above feelings as well as feelings of alertness, acute monitoring for future events, mental distress, prolonged emotional stress, and anxiety, combined with job insecurity.

Wildfires and Mental Health

Wildfires are large-scale fires that devastatingly affect an ecosystem as the forest’s carbon dioxide storage capacity is forever gone. (Medium-scale fires are known as bushfires.) Of course, property, crops, and even lives can be lost during these events.

During the years following a wildfire or bushfire, the following mental health issues have been observed:

• General mental health problems

• Posttraumatic disorders like PTSD

• Psychosomatic illnesses (an illness that involved the mind and body like migraines, which is a physical condition that is exacerbated by things like stress)

• Alcohol abuse

• Major depression

• Anxiety

• Hostility

• Paranoia

• Physiological hyperarousal

• Chronic dissociation and/or detachment

• Disorganized thinking and behavior

• Numbing or avoidance

• Poor concentration

• Behavioral problems

Not surprisingly, children, too, are affected by wildfires and bushfires. Children affected by bushfires have shown posttraumatic phenomena such as anxiety disorders and panic attacks, problems sleeping, acute stress disorder, compulsively repetitive play, flashbacks, and psychotic disorders.

What to Do About Climate Change, Weather Events, and Mental Health

When talking about the mental health effects of extreme weather events and climate change, the most common effects are anxiety disorders and depression. These two illnesses can be treated by:

• Anxiety disorders – According to Medscape, therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be useful as can medication like escitalopram (Lexapro) or paroxetine (Paxil).

• Depression – According to Medscape, psychotherapy is indicated as are medications like desvenlafaxine (Pristiq) or levomilnacipran (Fetzima).

Additionally, one way to mitigate the negative mental health effects of climate change events is to restore social cohesion and families as quickly as possible. This promotes recovery and reduces suffering from the event. Community cohesion even has a preventative effect as well as it can prepare the population more effectively for future events.

Better access to mental health care is something that is absolutely needed to combat the negative mental health affects of climate change and extreme weather events. Every person should have access to appropriate and knowledgeable care. However, this is difficult to do as climate change increases the number of extreme weather events experienced and the need for this help outstrips the available resources.

The IPCC report also suggests better monitoring of psychosocial impacts from extreme weather events is needed. Also, putting measures in place to limit damage, such as flood barriers, can also help those at direct risk.

And, of course, the big solution to this situation is to limit global warning by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, even if global warming is limited, it’s likely that it will continue to increase people’s needs for mental health services. For this reason, societies will have to learn to adapt to these new needs.

References

1. Bhatt, N. V., MD. (2022, February 1). Anxiety Disorders Treatment & Management: Approach Considerations, Pharmacotherapy for Anxiety and Panic Disorders, Psychotherapy for Anxiety and Panic Disorders. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/286227-treatment#showall

2. Cianconi, P. (2020, March 6). The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00074/full

3. Halverson, J. L., MD. (2021, November 29). Depression Treatment & Management: Approach Considerations, Pharmacologic Therapy for Depression, Psychotherapy. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/286759-treatment#showall

4. Morganstein, J. (2019, November). How Extreme Weather Events Affect Mental Health. American Psychiatric Association. https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/climate-change-and-mental-health-connections/affects-on-mental-health

5. Singh, I. (2022, March 3). IPCC report delves into how climate change is affecting mental health. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/what-on-earth-climate-change-mental-health-1.6371689

Disclaimer:

The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.
 
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