How interlinked are climate change and mental health? Very, an increasing body of research suggests, prompting questions about how we can tackle the nexus of two of the greatest crises of our times.
“We need to recognize that the climate crisis is the greatest public-health threat we face, and the mental health dimensions…are part of this larger set of health impacts,” says Gary Cohen, cofounder and president of Health Care Without Harm, a US-based organization that supports environmentally responsible healthcare.
The Overlapping Impacts of Climate Health and Mental Health
Mental health is a global crisis; in 2020, almost a billion people were reported as living with a mental health condition. Climate change is only exacerbating this critical issue.
To quote Gaia Brignone, head of community and communications at Kokoro, a UK nonprofit that champions mental health, “The relationship between climate change and mental health is bi-directional.” Climate disasters such as heat waves, droughts, and extreme storms bring on stressors, such as high financial costs, displacement, and physical injury, which can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
New terms such as climate anxiety, solastalgia, and eco-grief speak to the impacts of our broken relationship with the planet on humans’ mental health.
As Dr. Alison Hwong, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, says, “We see, on average, increased anxiety, distress, and post-traumatic stress responses to acute climate events such as hurricanes and wildfires.”
Hwong explains that climate change can cause both acute and chronic stress. People who are directly impacted by natural disasters may experience intense but temporary distress and sadness. The impacts of climate change, however, may also trigger or exacerbate long-term clinical depression and anxiety. Research shows that climate-caused disruptions impact adults and children alike, with similar outcomes of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Indeed, new terms such as climate anxiety, solastalgia, and eco-grief speak to the impacts of our broken relationship with the planet on humans’ mental health. Climate anxiety refers to the sense of impending dread people increasingly feel when confronted with the damage climate change can cause. The journal, Australas Psychiatry, defines solastalgia as the distress produced by environmental change that impacts one’s home environment. Eco-grief refers to the anguish and despair we feel when the places we live in and love deteriorate, along with these places’ ability to provide us with solace.
These new terms are part of a growing body of scientific work illuminating the relationship between mental health and climate change. “Numerous reports detail growing rates of suicide as the planet warms—particularly increased hospital admissions for psychiatric disorders during heat waves,” Hwong shares. Indeed, research by the Imperial College London shows that once a locale reaches a specific temperature threshold that is unique to that location, there is a one percent increase in suicide deaths for each temperature increase of one degree Celsius.
Despite recent growth of this field, a 2022 research review by Hwong revealed gaps in the literature. After reviewing 56 articles from 18 countries on the mental health effects of climate events, Hwong says that “there is a need for standardized definitions and a common language in climate change and mental health research.” Studies also need to consider how to measure neighborhood-level and community-level mental health effects, not just individual-level effects, Hwong adds. More intervention studies—which are designed to establish the effect of exposure to a specific intervention, such as a treatment or procedure—are also needed to bend the curve of climate-related adverse mental health outcomes at the local, regional, national, and global levels.
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Fighting for Change: Addressing Two Global Crises, Together
Mental health support is particularly needed throughout Africa, where climate vulnerability is especially high. A June 2022 study recommends that systematic efforts to support climate-related mental health research and interventions are crucial, and that African institutions and governments need to recognize and respond to emerging climate threats that are already impacting mental health.
“That looks like all health professionals, regardless of specialty, receiving a more sophisticated education about mental health assessments—and where appropriate, care—in the context of a changing climate.”
In Africa, research shows that climate change affects mental health through “disruptions of environmental, social and economic structures that populations depend on for survival,” says Ayomide Olude, Project Manager at SustyVibes, a nonprofit organization in Nigeria, which works with communities and young people to champion sustainable environmental projects.
Globally, mental health advocacy needs to pay attention to the voices being missed. Some of those voices include undocumented laborers often forced to work during climate disasters, children, and disabled people. Additionally, advocacy efforts must push multiple stakeholders to integrate mental health support into emergency response systems, Brignone adds.
“Health leaders and government health ministry staff will need to advocate for robust budgets for programs that address not only individual mental health services but also innovative, community-wide, mental health interventions,” says Cohen. “That looks like all health professionals, regardless of specialty, receiving a more sophisticated education about mental health assessments—and where appropriate, care—in the context of a changing climate.”
The Community Model
Climate and mental health initiatives like, Climate Cares, Mental Health For All Lab, Thriving Earth Exchange, and Anthropocene Alliance support those at risk of climate-related mental health issues—including climate activists on the frontlines.
TEAP was launched in 2022 after seeing a gap in knowledge about the interconnection between mental health and climate change in Africa. The initiative uses a community-engagement approach that creates space for dialogue on the two issues to advance understanding of eco-anxiety in Africa. Through webinars with African experts and enthusiasts, and through other climate activities, TEAP explores topics relating to climate mental resilience from an African lens, and environment-related emotions from both personal and academic perspectives. Entities like these help to increase mental health support for people by building relationships, offering resources, and providing education on the climate crisis in a way that empowers and promotes emotional wellbeing.
Dr. Gary Belkin, founder of Billion Minds Institute and New York City’s deputy health commissioner, was inspired by community-engagement approaches such as the one used by TEAP. In adopting such an approach, he came to understand that communities are their own assets in dealing with acute stress and finding ways to engage in mental health promotion and resilience. “It is actually critical to adopt a community-based approach if we want functional communities,” says Belkin.
Organizations are also starting to support this work financially. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund now offers competitive Climate Change and Human Health grants, while the National Institutes of Health has initiated funding opportunities at the intersection of climate change and mental health in the US.
“Mental health has always been a vastly underfunded dimension of health care delivery and social services in many nations,” says Cohen. To meet the increasing need for mental health care, the most vulnerable populations must be included in the conversation. In addition, normalizing this kind of care and formally integrating it into existing healthcare systems is critical to advancing climate resilience and action.