Mental Health Impacts
A Primer of Psychological Effects
Climate change poses a serious threat to public health. Many people now recognize that effects like extreme heat, storms, air pollution, and wildfires are hazardous to physical health, but fewer realize that mental health can be equally compromised by these large changes to our environment. Moods of anxiety, anger, and despair are likely to emerge when communities or entire nations are affected by scarcity, disaster, or environmental upheaval. Below, please find some basic information on the psychological effects of climate change.
Researchers have classified three main types of psychological climate impacts: direct, indirect, and psychosocial.
Studies have repeatedly shown a connection between higher temperatures and aggression. Hot years result in a greater amount of violence than cooler years, even when other statistical controls are used. As the world continues warming, aggressive behavior is expected to increase.
Case studies of communities after wildfires, tsunamis, hurricanes, or other disasters have found high rates of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychopathologies, especially in those more directly exposed to the threat. Six months after the 2004 tsunami off the coast of Thailand, 57.3% of Thai students surveyed displayed symptoms of PTSD. Five years later, 2.7% of victims still continued to suffer from PTSD. Climate change has been connected to increases in extreme weather, including a major increase over the past thirty years of billion-dollar disasters
In addition to sudden and dramatic upheaval from extreme weather and other disasters, long-term climate change can also negatively affect mental health. From 1970 to 2007 in New South Wales, Australia, suicide in rural mencorrelated strongly with the drought index; as the drought index increased, so did the risk of suicide.
As resources like fresh water and food become scarcer, communities are likely to experience tension and conflict. Some commentators have linked the recent Arab Spring uprisings and rebellions with food and water scarcity in the region.
Climate change is putting millions of people at risk of displacement due to shifts in resource availability, flooding, sea level rise, and other factors. Already, people from island communities in the Pacific have been granted international asylum as climate refugees. Displacement and refugee status have been found to result in a higher rate of PTSD and behavioral problems.
200 million Americans are estimated to be at risk of psychological climate-related distress.
A wider understanding of the role of psychologists and behavioral scientists in the adaptation effort is needed throughout the scientific community.