What are the impacts of climate change on mental health?

While climate change may take a physical toll on our planet and bodies, the impacts on mental health will be important to consider as well, even close to home. According to the NWF, “50 percent of Americans live in coastal regions exposed to storms and sea level rise, 70 percent of Americans live in cities prone to heat waves.”

Extreme weather can exacerbate symptoms for people with preexisting mental conditions. For instance, “During these hotter periods, they appear to get sicker than expected, show greater dangerousness towards others and require more frequent use of restraints (Severity of Psychiatric Illness (SPI) Scale for Dangerousness and Bulbena, et al., 2006).”

In addition to making symptoms worse, heat waves can have serious consequences for people who are on certain kinds of medication, like that for schizophrenia, who may even become hyperthermic as a result.

However, climate change can also create new problems for those without mental health conditions. For instance, “A link has been shown between heat and different types of human behavior, especially aggression, with an increase in the number of murders, assaults, and domestic violence incidents when the weather is hot (Rotton & Cohn, 2004; Cohn & Rotton, 2005; Anderson, 1987).”

Extreme weather events can also result in increased stress and PTSD, along with higher rates of suicide. For example, after Katrina, “Affected communities showed high rates of depression, domestic violence and significantly higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts (14.7 and 78.6 times above the area’s baseline rate, respectively).” Therefore, climate change can not only make existing mental health conditions worse, but it can also create new ones.

There are different ways in which climate change may lead to impacts on mental health. Heat waves can directly impact the body, and when it comes to extreme weather events like Katrina,

…mental health injuries were a consequence not only of exposure to the event itself, but also to the subsequent general displacement, uncertain housing and employment, insufficient access to support services, and the belief that those in authority who could have done something, did not do enough or adequately prepare.

However, in addition to the impacts of disaster, there are also some researchers who are examining solastalgia, or the “palpable sense of dislocation and loss that people feel when they perceive changes to their local environment as harmful.” Climate change may affect mental health not just through extreme weather events, but also through the transformation of the world as we know it.