Mental health issues are currently the invisible impact of climate change.
Climate anxiety and eco-anxiety (a chronic fear of environmental doom) are increasing across society. Many of us are becoming increasingly aware of the current and future global threats to our warming planet. The threats of climate change aren’t just to our planet, or our bodies but to our mental health.
Most of the research and discourse surrounding the health implications of climate change have focused on our physical health. However, what has more recently come to light is a further health challenge: the mental health toll.
Whether experienced indirectly or directly, stressors to our climate can affect us in many ways and can result in depression and anxiety.
The impacts of climate change on our mental health are vast. For example, climate change-induced disasters cause acute psychological trauma and shock – whether from loss of loved ones, property, injury, or survivor’s guilt.
The burden of this trauma can lead to increased stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.
The way that we respond to global disasters works in two distinct, but connected ways.
The first is those who have directly experienced the disaster. Their direct exposure to the impacts of climate change can have far-reaching impacts. The second response comes from the indirect effects of disasters. This could be from watching the news, hearing from a friend or family member, or reading a distressing scientific article. “Distress reactions” are psychological responses we can experience from climate-change. These include depression, insomnia, and substance abuse.
If left unacknowledged or untreated, these reactions can lead to mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. In fact, up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffer depression after a natural disaster.
How extreme weather can affect our mental health
One study highlights a relationship between temperature and injury. As the temperature increase, we begin to see notable changes in alcohol consumption, reckless driving, anger levels, and suicidal thoughts. The same study has shown that when temperatures rise, there are increased levels of death by suicide, especially among men.
It has been established that rates of suicide increase with rising temperatures. Evidence shows that the rate rises almost 1% per 1 celsius degree increase in heat, above a certain threshold. Furthermore, people with pre-existing mental illness, particularly psychosis or substance abuse, are two to three times more likely to die during heatwaves.
Natural disasters, such as floods, wildfires, and heatwaves, can have a direct affect on our health. However, the indirect impacts are pervasive when it comes to our mental health. These include: climate-forced migration, weakened infrastructure or insecure food systems, disrupted access to healthcare, or loss of jobs.
The stress that these factors can put on us can also put strains on our relationships, and even have impacts on our physical health. These impacts can include changes in our digestion, memory loss, insomnia, and immune suppression.
Impact of climate change on our children’s mental health
There is a notable increase in how distressed young people are about the future of our earth. Nearly 6 in 10 young people are now extremely worried about climate change. A similar number of young people feel that they are being let down by the government, and as though they have been betrayed by the older generation.
The psychological impacts of this fear and distress are extensive. Levels of depression, anxiety, and insomnia are rising in young people at a rate unlike ever before. Many young people feel that the damage has gone too far to turn it around. These feelings, whilst creating irrational thought processes, are the result of rational thought.
Climate change and government inaction are constant features on our newsreels or on our Twitter feeds. Media outlets can often confirm the root fears of many of us have about climate change, but particularly those with their whole life ahead of them.
Because of this, 4 in 10 young people have said that they do not want to have children.
With many of our young people facing the brunt of the effects of climate change, we need to protect them and their mental health. There are many avenues to take to support them through their distress, but one important option to consider is therapy.
Many of our therapists are trained to work with younger individuals and students. They are able to offer support and therapeutic techniques to cope with anxiety and depression.
What can you do to cope?
Acknowledge your feelings about climate change
It’s okay to be anxious or afraid about how climate change might impact your life, the life of your loved ones, or the future of the planet as a whole. Don’t hide these feelings.
An important step is acknowledging that your anxiety and distress are a normal response to the fears surrounding climate change. It is also a response that many people around us are feeling too. Normalising your anxieties about climate change helps to reduce feelings of isolation, overwhelm, and intense fear.
So, talk with friends and family, or find a community on the internet to share your feelings. This is a collective experience and we can find strength from those around us. If the problem becomes too great, try reaching out to a therapist.
Turn off the news
We do not have to live through a natural disaster to suffer the mental health consequences of climate change. Watching or reading about climate change and natural disasters on the news, or hearing how climate change has impacted our friends and family, can cause anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues.
It is okay to turn off the news.
We are not meant to know the trauma that individuals from all around the world experience. Yes, our brains are programmed to feel care, empathy, and love. However, this is for those in our immediate life. In the years before social media, online communities, or telecommunications more generally, we could process the pain of those in our own circles.
Now, these circles have expanded to cover the globe, and our brain is working to process the pain of disasters around the earth. Understandably, we feel overwhelmed, distressed, and burnt out.
Look after yourself and your mental health by taking the time to turn off your phone, mute the news blasts, or turn off the radio.
If you don’t feel comfortable turning the news off completely, limit where you get your news from to just 2-3 reliable sources, and learn tools to rely upon when you feel distressed by the news.
Make a physical safety plan
Climate change can make many of us feel out of control, as though there is nothing we can do. Even small actions can help us to feel more in control and resilient in a climate emergency.
Some examples are:
- Having an emergency kit in your car
- This could include water, blankets, non-perishable food, battery packs, torches, and even books or music to help calm you.
- Ensuring you have supplies in your house
- Sorting out an insurance cover for flooding/fire damage
- Forming a plan with family for emergencies
Finding things that you can control will help you both practically and emotionally.
Make a safety plan for your mental health
Learn your triggers and what makes you feel more anxious. If seeing photos of wildfires, or reading distressing scientific studies about the impacts of global warming trigger your anxiety, try to avoid it.
When you feel the anxiety taking over, try going for a walk, or doing a mindfulness exercise, having a calming tea, or reaching out to someone close to you.
Try reaching out to a therapist if you find that these actions still aren’t helping you. They will work with you to develop a plan to protect your mental health in a climate crisis. At Hope Therapy, we have a vast range of therapists ready to help you manage anxiety and other mental health issues.
Get involved in your community
Reaching out to your community can help cope with anxieties or realities surrounding climate change.
- Regularly reaching out to your neighbours
- Joining community organisations
- Engaging with your local political leaders
Advocating politically for more focus to be placed on climate change has been said to help people manage their anxiety. Political engagement gives us a sense of agency and control.
It is useful to remind yourself that communities can exist outside of traditional ideas of location or family connection. Online communities can be just as valuable in helping to process your eco-anxiety.
It is important to remember that if your distress about climate change is becoming too consuming and it’s interfering with your life, there’s help available. Please don’t hesitate to reach out today. We are here to help you process your fears, and you offer tools and techniques to manage your anxiety.
Owner and lead counsellor of Hope Therapy & Counselling Services. Ian draws upon various approaches including CBT, Person-Centred Counselling and Mindfulness.
To book a session with Ian or one of the Hope Team, just get in touch.