To mark the nation's 52nd Earth Day, Robert Feder, MD, outlines how climate change will exacerbate mental health challenges and the importance of global efforts to address the crisis.
The recent United Nations IPCC Sixth Assessment Report1 concluded that climate change has already caused significant changes in the earth’s weather with increased severe weather events, flooding, drought, and fires.
The report indicated that if major efforts to reduce global temperatures are not implemented immediately, these events are going to greatly increase in frequency and severity. In addition, there will be a large loss of human habitat through rising sea levels and temperature increases.
Tragically, the report concluded, most governments are not currently taking the necessary steps to reverse this problem.
Climate change escalates mental health issues in 2 ways. The first is the direct impact of changes in climate on mental health. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, and drought are all highly traumatic events that cause death, disability, and impoverishment. This results in significant psychiatric morbidity with new incidences of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, as well as exacerbation of pre-existing mental disorders.
Rising ambient temperatures have also been shown to strongly correlate with increases in violent crime,2 which causes additional psychiatric morbidity in crime victims. In addition, rising ambient temperatures are associated with higher suicide rates3 and growing emergency room mental health visits.4
The second way that the climate crisis increases the need for mental health services is by causing anxiety and pessimism in the general population, especially younger people.
A recent global study5 showed that roughly 50% of people aged 16 to 25 years are experiencing significant feelings of anxiety and depression in relation to climate issues. Concerns about climate change are now showing up in therapists’ offices.6 Despite accumulating knowledge about how to help with these problems,7 the number of “climate informed” therapists remains low.
Exacerbating all of these problems is the existing critical shortage of providers throughout the mental health care system in the United States.
Approximately 37% of American people currently live in areas that have serious problems with access to mental health care.8 This is likely to get significantly worse in the coming decade as global temperatures warm and climate change creates increasing demand for mental health services.
Dealing with the mental health fallout of the climate crisis will be an escalating challenge for all health care systems.
Improved access to mental health services, an increase in the number of mental health providers, and a reduction in the use of fossil fuels will all be necessary to meet this challenge.
1. Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaption, and vulnerability. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/
2. Ranson M. Crime, weather, and climate change. J Environmental Economics and Management. 2014;67(3):274-302. doi:10.1016/j.jeem.2013.11.008
3. Dumont C, Haase E, Dolber T, et. al. Climate change and risk of completed suicide. J Nervous Mental Disease. 2020;208(7):559-565. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000001162
4. Nori-Sarma A, Sun S,Sun Y, et. al. Association between ambient heat and risk of emergency department visits for mental health among U.S. adults, 2010 to 2019. JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;79(4):341-349. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4369
5. Hickman C, Marks E, Pihkala P, et al. Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. Lancet Planetary Health. 2021;5(12):e863-e873. doi:10.1016/S2542-5916(21)00278-3
6. Barry E. Climate change enters the therapy room. The New York Times. Published February 6, 2022. Accessed April 18, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/06/health/climate-anxiety-therapy.html
7. Feder R. A brief guide to individual therapy for climate-related mental distress. 2022. New Hampshire Healthcare Workers for Climate Action. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/612cd210a8d3d07eb4886599/t/624b1e53920d8118dc41ed9a/1649090131629/A+Brief+Guide+to+Individual+Therapy+for+%283%29.pdf
8. Over one-third of Americans live in areas lacking mental health professionals. USA Facts. Published July 14, 2021. Accessed April 18, 2022. https://usafacts.org/articles/over-one-third-of-americans-live-in-areas-lacking-mental-health-professionals/