Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Mental Health and Climate Change

Last Friday, several members of our Global Mental Health Programs joined an estimated 300,000 people to participate in the Global Climate Strike in Foley Square. One of over 2,500 events held in over 163 countries on all seven continents. Over 4 million people participated in The Global Climate Strikes around the world – the largest mass protest for action on climate change in history.

Photo Credit: Liza Magill, GMHP at NYC Global Climate Strike 

Rising tides and parched forests are well-documented concerns in conversations about climate change. The mental health implications of climate change are less well-documented, but also profound. Here are five reasons for mental health and climate change advocates to get talking.

1. Rising overall temperatures are linked to worse mental health. A 2018 study examined the connection between meteorological and climate data and mental health status. They found that a 5 degree increase in average temperature would result in nearly 2 million additional individuals reporting mental health difficulties in just a one-month period. When the heat index surged above 103 degrees in Baltimore during the summer of 2018, emergency calls related to psychiatric conditions increased by 40%.

2. Climate change, natural disasters, and trauma. The number of natural weather-related disasters happening each year has quadrupled since 1970. Now there are around 400 disasters worldwide a year. According to the CDC, disasters increase the risk of mental health disorders and distress, even in those without prior history of mental health issues. Severe exposure to natural disasters is linked to a risk of severe mental health symptoms.

3. Climate-related migration is growing. In 2018, 18.8 million people were internally displaced due to disaster-related events. There is currently no way to track how many people are crossing international borders due to climate change, but it is already happening, especially in small islands in Oceania. Although these people are forced to leave their home countries due to climate change, international law has not yet recognized them as “refugees.” This leaves some individuals stateless or without legal representation in their new country, exacerbating typical mental health challenges related to migration.

4. Low and middle-income countries will suffer the greatest impacts of climate change and its mental health implications. Low and middle-income countries are especially vulnerable to climate change. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, there will be 140 million climate migrants in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. Mass migration and resource scarcity increase the risk for violence, war, and political instability – all of which have profound mental health implications for individuals, societies, and generations.

5. Climate change and enduring stress. The majority of people in the US and around the world are worried about how climate change poses a threat to them. This caused psychiatrist Dr. Lisa Van Susteren to coin the term climate-linked pre-traumatic stress, or stress caused by the anticipation of the impacts of climate change. It is especially prevalent among climate scientists themselves, who most significantly report being ‘afraid,’ ‘despairing,’ and ‘overwhelmed’ by climate change. We must address both the mental health implications of current climate changes and the anticipation of the future of our world.

Sometimes it can seem that climate change is too big and too scary for any of us to have an impact – similar to how some think about mental illness. When I feel that way, I remember what Margaret Mead, recipient of the 1978 Planetary Citizen of the Year award, said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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