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Wildfires in California, air pollution in South Korea, floods in Greece. All of this is being recorded, shared, and reported, to the point where seeing images, news stories, and data about the climate crisis and its ramifications like severe droughts and biodiversity loss is by now just a daily occurrence. For countless people, though, the climate is not just something they read about in newspapers, but a reality that threatens their livelihood and safety. This situation is also impacting public mental health, causing anxiety-related responses and severe mental health disorders.
Climate change exacerbates the risk of extreme natural disasters, which are becoming more and more frequent. In the EEA member countries, between 1980 and 2019, weather and climate-related extremes cost EUR 446 billion, accounting for around 81 % of the total economic losses caused by natural hazards.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that between January and March 2021, the average U.S. temperature was 36.9 degrees F, ranking in the warmest third of the record. In the first three months of the year, the U.S. experienced a deep freeze and two tornado outbreaks. For millions of people, the 24-hour news cycle and social media are some of the chief reasons behind their eco-anxiety. Others, though, are already struggling with the consequences of the climate crisis. That's because even though the entire human population will be affected by climate change, some people are more vulnerable than others.
Vulnerability to climate change is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon influenced by an array of social and environmental factors. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, the three countries and territories most affected by climate change in 2019 were Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and the Bahamas. Between 2000 and 2019, Puerto Rico, Myanmar and Haiti rank highest. Due to weaker infrastructures and more limited resources, low-income countries and communities are more affected by the climate crisis than wealthier nations and populations. The people who live in small islands and coastal regions, mountainous, polar regions, and megacities are highly vulnerable, and so are children, elderly people, and people with disabilities or pre-existing medical conditions. Because of Environmental Racism, climate change disproportionately affects people of colour, who are more likely to die of environmental causes. In the United States, more than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of oil and natural gas wells, processing, transmission, and storage facilities, exposing them to a severe risk of cancer due to exposure to toxic emissions. Women are more likely than men to be negatively affected by the climate crisis: women constitute 80% of the people displaced by climate change.
Given the current circumstances, many people are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. According to the report, "Climate Change in the American Mind: April 2020", elaborated by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme events in their local area, and 43% of Americans think they will be harmed by global warming. In addition, 44% of Americans say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming.
This sense of impending doom and fear of ecological destruction can take a significant toll on one's life, especially if they become chronic. In 2017, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined this chronic fear of environmental doom as Eco-anxiety. As climate anxiety and PTSD rise, many therapists find themselves unequipped to properly treat the growing number of patients struggling with climate change-induced mental health issues. A 2016 study by Elizabeth B. Seaman from Smith College revealed that 50% of U.S therapists felt that they weren’t adequately prepared to work with clients who were struggling with climate change.
People with pre-existing mental health conditions are more likely to be impacted by extreme weather events, as they are more liable to live in poverty or to have co-occurring substance use disorders, which can be exacerbated by exposure to extreme heat. Additionally, people with mental health or psychiatric conditions tend to be more dependent on infrastructure, medications, and services whose supply can be disrupted by natural disasters. Climate change-induced disasters such as flooding and prolonged droughts have been associated with immediate and severe psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders. This is caused by the trauma and losses inflicted by natural disasters, such as losing loved ones and pets, personal property, and livelihood.
This phenomenon highlights the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis and the necessity to provide all citizens with adequate and accessible mental health services.