Coping with Climate Change

It threatens our mental and physical well-being

Illustration by Gloria Diiani

If you lived in New Hampshire in 2008, you might recall the big ice storm that hit in December of that year. It created widespread damage, knocked out power for millions of people in the Northeast, and left many without running water for days.

While it’s fair to say that much of what the Granite State has experienced in the way of climate-related disasters pales in comparison to what has occurred in other parts of the world, many of us who lived through that ice storm remember how unsettling it was, as our homes — typically our sanctuaries — were transformed overnight into dark, uninhabitable ice boxes.

As countless experts warn of dire consequences to come from climate change, we can readily understand how extreme weather threatens people’s physical comfort and safety. Even subtle shifts in climate can significantly affect our lives, however, and jeopardize not just our physical health but also our psychological well-being.

Indeed, natural disasters, big or small, related to climate change have been linked with higher rates of stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

There remains much to learn about the consequences of climate change on mental health, says Anne N. Sosin, the Global Health Initiative program director at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. However, “we know that climate change is leading to an increase in infectious diseases, disaster-related death and injuries, [and] changing nutritional patterns,” Sosin says.

Climate change can affect our mental health in a range of ways, Sosin says, but cause-and-effect relationships can be difficult to prove, and physiological and psychological health are in many ways intertwined. “But beyond disasters,” Sosin says, it’s clear that even subtle changes to our climate “can both directly and indirectly affect mental health in a lot of ways. … Our lives change as a result of changes in the environment.”

Infrastructure, food systems and economic activity, for example, are all vulnerable not just to disasters but also to smaller shifts in the physical environment. The potential damage that can come to these components of our daily lives — each of which can influence our physical and mental health — becomes evident when you consider widespread power loss, for example, or the farmers who are experiencing droughts and an increase in pests, or the fishermen whose fishing yields and livelihoods are threatened by the changing climate. The fallout trickles down to each of us, as electrical outages affect our ability to work, food shortages force us to dig deeper in our wallets to pay for nutritious food, or we find that some types of food are no longer available. “With those changes,” Sosin says, “we can expect to see impacts on individuals and communities and society as a whole.”

Certain populations, though, such as the poor and the elderly, face a heightened risk. “We know that climate change amplifies underlying social inequities, so we can expect that its impact will be borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable populations,” Sosin says. “Those populations that are experiencing housing and food insecurity as well as [decreased] access to healthcare will really bear the burden of these changes, and those burdens will express themselves both in physical health disparities but also in poor mental health outcomes.”

Thinking back once again to the ice storm of 2008, perhaps you recall the surreal landscape, with tree branches encased in ice drooping down to the street. As far as the eye could see, everything was coated with ice. Turning inward brought no comfort, as home was dark and so cold you could see your breath hanging in the air.

Sosin notes that Glenn Albrecht, a now-retired Australian professor of sustainability, coined the term “solastalgia” to describe the sense of distress we feel in seeing our physical environment radically and negatively transformed, regardless of whether the cause was natural, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina, or artificial, as happens during war. “Solastalgia exists when there is recognition that the beloved place in which one resides is under assault,” Albrecht wrote in a 2006 piece published in Alternatives Journal. “Human health, both mental and physical, is intimately tied to ecosystem health.”

“I think we all feel that here,” Sosin says. “Those of us who live in northern New England, we feel this sense of connection to the natural environment, to our lakes, our mountains, our forests. We see, I think, a sense of loss that comes with a radical transformation of the physical world, the places that our livelihoods and lives depend on.”

By the numbers
According to the American Public Health Association and ecoAmerica:
Up to 54 percent of adults and 45 percent of children suffer depression after a natural disaster.
Forty-nine percent of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina developed an anxiety or mood disorder, and 1 in 6 developed PTSD. Suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled.
After a climate event or resulting displacement, people may experience a diminished sense of self, difficulty relating to others, diminished social interaction and solastalgia (the loss of a sense of place, solace, and security tied to one’s physical environment). Community impacts include domestic abuse, child abuse, violence and economic insecurity.

What you can do
Feeling that you have no control over climate change can worsen its psychological effects. To help ease anxiety, take action: Speak up — reach out to political leaders, for example, walk or bike more instead of driving and/or drive a low-emissions vehicle, eat more eco-friendly plant-based food rather than meat, and engage in community-based efforts that support a healthful environment.

For more information:
apha.org/climate
climateforhealth.org
planetaryhealthalliance.org

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