Having a passion for the environment is the fuel for change: it can motivate us to get involved with nonprofit organizations, campus clubs, and policy advocacy. However, this does not come without a cost. When we care about the environment, having knowledge about or experiencing the effects of climate change can also impact our mental health.
While individuals and policymakers often—and rightfully—focus on the physical impacts of climate change, such as increasing respiratory ailments, they often do not connect mental health to that conversation. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), climate change can also cause a variety of direct and indirect mental health impacts including heightened stress and strained social relationships. This blog post will explain some of these mental health impacts —and provide a few tips about how we can manage our mental health in a changing climate.
What is the link between climate change and mental health?
While the link may not seem apparent, many of climate change’s effects can both directly and indirectly impact mental wellbeing. For example, an increase in extreme natural disasters, such as storms, can take a direct toll on the mental health of those who experience those disasters. In addition, climate change’s indirect consequences, such as power outages, disruptions to medical infrastructure, and business closures can also increase stress and anxiety.
Some mental health impacts of climate change, both today and in the future, can be acute. For example, damaged food and water resources and polluted air are linked to increased levels of stress. This can strain social relationships and lead to trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Other mental health impacts are more chronic. For example, as climate change progresses, our society may experience an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and loss. These feelings of loss may be related to the loss of a personally important place like a home, loss of a sense of control over one’s life, or loss of personal or occupational identity.
How can individuals and policymakers support our mental health?
Climate change is a staggering foe, and its potential psychological impacts can seem overwhelming. However, just as it is vital to respond to the physical impacts of climate change, responding to and mitigating the mental consequences is equally important.
There are several steps that policymakers can take to support positive mental health in the face of climate change. In order to support communities, policymakers should ensure that comprehensive mental health infrastructure is in place. Moreover, policymakers should reduce disparities and pay attention to populations whose psychological wellbeing is most at risk from climate change, such as people with disabilities, people whose livelihoods depend on fishing or agriculture, people who live in indigenous communities, and people of lower socioeconomic status. As individuals, we can advocate for local and national policymakers to adopt this infrastructure.
Solving environmental issues, including the mental health impacts, requires societal change and government and corporate action. However, there are some actions that individuals can take to support their mental health. For example, we can participate in mindset training to prepare for adversity. We can care for ourselves through healthy habits and connect with our family, friends, and neighbors to promote strong social networks. Furthermore, we can participate in climate solutions such as walking or biking to work, using public transportation, and advocating for green spaces, as studies show that these environmental solutions create co-benefits for stress and anxiety. Lastly, if we feel that we need it, we can pursue professional mental health help.
Overall, while the mental health impacts of climate change can seem staggering, we can support our mental health at home, and, more importantly, advocate for change at the policy level. To learn more about climate change and mental health, feel free to check out the APA website.