Climate change is a public health crisis that threatens the physical and mental health of our communities.
Our society is experiencing the real threat of climate change in small and big ways. With the frequency and strength of natural disasters increasing across our globe, there are significant impacts to our health including: food insecurity, lack of housing, contaminated water, and air pollution. As these dramatic changes to our climate continue to impact our everyday lives, we must also examine and prepare for the consequential effects on our mental health.
Personal exposure to natural disasters such as forest fires, hurricanes, heatwaves, and major floods can have a tremendous impact on an individual’s emotional and mental wellbeing. These events are physically and mentally traumatic, causing prolonged distress and anxiety. Extreme weather events have additionally been associated with increases in intimate partner violence and high-risk coping mechanisms such as alcohol abuse.
There is increasing evidence that extreme weather events—which are more frequent under a changing climate—can trigger feelings of depression, anxiety, grief, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and trauma. Researchers—in collaboration with Crisis Text Line—investigated mental health support-seeking behaviors in North and South Carolina in the wake of Hurricane Florence in 2018. The study found an increase in conversations discussing anxiety and stress, depression, and suicidal thoughts in the weeks after the hurricane compared to the time before. Another study by the research team found an increase in help-seeking behavior during anomalously warm conditions among young adults. Based on this evidence, the researchers highlighted a crucial need to scale up mental health support for young people navigating weather and climate-related disasters.
Natural disasters can be worse for those with existing mental illness conditions, and may also negatively impact those with substance use disorders in terms of access to critical treatment programs, community support and services. Furthermore, these disruptions can be further exacerbated in marginalized communities grappling with an already fragile community infrastructure and lack of social service support.
Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and Trust for America’s Health recently analyzed states’ vulnerability and readiness for climate-related events. This report highlights the increased risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions in correlation to climate-related disasters. This evidence not only represents the short-term stress and anxiety felt by those impacted by natural disasters, but the ongoing mental health issues that may persist as a result.
For tips on coping with climate-related stress, here are some resources:
For those experiencing stress, anxiety or depression in correlation to a climate event, please text HELLO to 741741 or 442-SUPPORT in WhatsApp to be connected to a live, trained volunteer Crisis Counselor or text HOLA to 741741 or 442-AYUDAME in WhatsApp for Spanish.