How Climate Change Will Impact Mental Heath

Direct and gradual consequences of unchecked climate change.

Posted Feb 13, 2020

Climate change will have both direct and gradual impacts on health and mental health.

In the coming decades, climate change will probably have enormous impacts on both physical and mental health on a global scale. As global warming continues, the frequency and severity of natural disasters are expected to increase resulting in large-scale negative impacts on health and mental health in all world regions. Factors that will determine the magnitude of psychological consequences of climate change include the severity of climate impacts, damage to critical infrastructure caused by severe weather events, and geographic and socio-economic variables that translate into greater or lesser degrees of preparedness and resilience at the level of individuals, communities, and countries.

While some mental health impacts of climate change will be direct results of natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, other impacts will result from gradual changes that occur over many years, including steady increases in temperature that are predicted to cause drought and famine, and rising sea levels that will result in large-scale dislocation of "climate refugees," food insecurity, and regional conflicts over increasingly scarce resources of food and water. Taken together, the direct mental health impact of natural disasters and the indirect impacts of steady increases in temperature on resource availability and quality of life will probably result in an increased incidence of anxiety disorders, depressed mood, and PTSD.

This post is offered as a very short overview of a very complex subject, namely, the expected mental health consequences of unchecked climate change. In a future post, I will comment on strategies aimed at enhancing emotional resilience in the face of climate change.

Individuals who live in less developed countries and drought-stricken regions are at greater risk.

The rate of increase in mental health problems caused by climate change will be related to the severity and frequency of extreme weather events and where such events take place on the planet. It is likely that industrialized countries that have better infrastructure in place will develop proactive responses to gradual changes in weather patterns and rising sea levels resulting in relatively fewer health and mental health impacts of climate change.

In contrast, smaller and less developed countries with limited financial resources will face greater challenges when building infrastructure in efforts to insulate their populations from health and mental health consequences of climate change. Individuals who live in drought-stricken regions that already face chronic water and food shortages may be less resilient compared to individuals living in regions where there are greater water and food security. The result will be a greater risk of stress-related mental health problems in drought-stricken regions in the face of future natural disasters.  

In addition to the acute effects of extreme weather and natural disasters on mental health, a higher average temperature expected with unchecked global warming may intensify shared feelings of desolation and loss resulting in chronic stress and increased risk of anxiety, mood disorders, and PTSD. The term "eco-anxiety" was recently coined to describe widespread feelings of intense helplessness and fatalism experienced by growing numbers of people in response to concerns over irreversible negative impacts of climate change.

Individuals who live in less developed countries where there is widespread poverty, recently arrived refugees, and outdated infrastructure are more vulnerable to the negative health and mental health impacts of climate change because implementing preparedness strategies and repairing damaged infrastructure following natural disasters will be more costly and take longer—if it will be possible at all. The consequence will be more severe stress at a broad societal level and a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and PTSD among populations where there are fewer resources for maintaining essential nutrition and providing adequate medical and mental health care. Individuals coping with chronic stresses related to climate change may be at increased risk of substance abuse.

Increased rates of depression, anxiety, and PTSD are predictable consequences of climate change.

Increases in the incidence of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are predictable consequences of continued climate change. Individuals with existing mental health problems will probably be more vulnerable than healthy individuals. Children and the elderly will probably be most vulnerable to the deleterious mental health impacts of climate change because they are dependent on others for both safety and sustenance. Lasting symptoms of anxiety may be especially widespread among children who often feel overwhelmed following a natural disaster and are fearful for their family’s safety and worried about the future.

Climate change will lead to increased rates of serious medical illnesses that will, in turn, increase the risk of developing severe mental health problems.

In addition to increasing the risk of mental health problems, unchecked global warming and associated climate change will probably also lead to increased rates of serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, infectious illnesses, and diseases caused by chronic malnutrition.

Individuals afflicted with chronic medical problems will be at increased risk of developing severe depressed mood and anxiety, and other serious mental health conditions in response both to the short-term severe stress of natural disasters and the chronic stress of living with gradual climate change. If global warming continues unchecked there is a real risk that the mental health and medical consequences of climate change could erode the stability of interpersonal relationships, families, communities, and large populations in world regions that are most severely impacted by natural disasters or where gradual changes in climate lead to increased scarcity in water and food.

For a more detailed discussion of the relationships between climate change and mental health, the reader is referred to a comprehensive study on the psychological impacts of climate change.

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