With the current COP27 conference on climate change underway, many experts and organizations are voicing their concerns on how climate change will impact on the health of millions. A report published in the summer of 2022 by the IPCC analyses the impact of climate change on the health of the global population.
While a changing climate means an increase in vector habitats; the increased risk of transmission of infectious disease; changing food landscapes and increasing food insecurity; climate change is set to have a large impact on the mental health of thousands of individuals.
According to the WHO over 792 million individuals suffer from a mental health disorder or illness, and around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition, with suicide the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds.
The constant pressure of battling the climate can leave people with chronic stress, particularly those who are in the frontline of environmental change – such a farmers and fishermen or those who live hand-to-mouth off the land.
Climate anxiety – Vicarious exposure
Climate change anxiety is a condition which is experienced by those, often young, people overwhelmed with anger or anxiety and hopelessness that they have no control over the future. This is termed ‘vicarious exposure’ as one cannot escape the endless negative media or observing the impact of climate change on others.
Ecological grief, as described in Nature, as “intense feelings of grief as people suffer climate-related losses to valued species, ecosystems and landscapes”, is growing as people feel bereft when vulnerable and unique habitats are lost due to climate change.
Poor mental health, whether that be increased stress, depression or anxiety, can impact on daily life and cause other serious health complaints. Researchers have proven poor mental health links to chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiac problems and allergies.
Heatwaves increase suicide rates
Research conducted in a large scoping review found that that “several climate-related exposures, including heat, humidity, rainfall, drought, wildfires, and floods were associated with psychological distress, worsened mental health, and higher mortality among people with pre-existing mental health conditions, increased psychiatric hospitalisations, and heightened suicide rates”.
Studies reported in the IPCC’s climate change report published in June found that a 1°C rise in monthly average temperatures over several decades was associated with a 2.1% rise in suicide rates in Mexico, as well as increased suicide rates in the US. Similar research was conducted in Canada and across Europe.
Natural disasters and PTSD – direct exposure
While the experience of frequent devastating natural disasters such tropical cyclones and flooding can increase rates of trauma and PTSD. The cycle of loss and grief are compounded with the lack of shelter and temporary provisions and loss of communities and livelihoods.
Displacement and migration can have long lasting effects on communities, with feelings of loss and grief of losing ancestral lands and connection to their cultural heritage. Lack of identity and social and economic factors can lead individuals into substance abuse or alcohol abuse as a means of escape.
On CABI Global Health there are 270 results using the search “climate change” and “mental health”:
Charlson, F. ; Ali, S. ; Benmarhnia, T. ; Pearl, M. ; Massazza, A. ; Augustinavicius, J. ; Scott, J. G. (2021) Climate change and mental health: a scoping review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2021 Vol.18 No.9 ref.131 http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094486
Cunsolo, A., Ellis, N.R. (2018) Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Clim Change 8, 275–281 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0092-2
IPCC (2022) Chapter&: Health, Wellbeing and the Changing Structure of Communities. IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. pp1076 1079- chapter 7.2.5
World Health Organization (2021) Mental health atlas 2020. Geneva: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240036703