Climate Change and Mental Health

February 5, 2018

At DKI Canada, we want to focus on issues that are important to you, the homeowner. In keeping with that desire, we will be posting weekly blog articles on environment, technology, and the way it could impact you and your family. This week we begin with climate change, and how it can affect mental health.

hurricane from outer space

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Climate change is a change in climate patterns, believed to be brought about by the use of fossil fuels, such as coal or gas. It has a direct impact on our environment – weather extremes, flooding, droughts, and more natural disasters. But more evidence is suggesting climate change not only brings damage to our environment and animals, but also to the human psyche. 

Of course, there is the physical harm that can come to the human population from climate change disasters: Hurricane Harvey, tied with Katrina as the most expensive hurricane ever recorded, ripped through the Caribbean, demolishing homes and bringing down power. It tore through Texas, leaving 103 people dead from storm-related incidents. Then there was the wildfires in Northern California – the deadliest in the state’s history.

volcano explodingBut what about the harm to our mental health?

According to a report published in 2017 by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica, the changing climate is causing an increase in climate-related stress and anxiety, strain to social relationships, and is linked to an increase in violence and aggression. There are several reasons as to why this link exist.

Let’s start by examining the physical health effects of climate change.

  1. Damaged food and water resources: This will affect the poor and aging populations the first and foremost. According to the Mental Health & Our Changing Climate study, food safety “can be affected because climate change can lower crop yields, reduce the nutritional quality of food, interrupt distribution chains, and reduce access to food because families lose income”. Malnutrition and hunger can also result in poorer countries with vulnerable populations.
  2. Poor air quality: Ozone air pollution, caused mainly by vehicles and industrial facilities, may lead to respiratory illnesses, and can be a significant problem for people with asthma. According to the study, “hotter and drier summers increase the frequency and intensity of large wildfires that contribute to smoke inhalation”.
  3. Unborn Babies & Children: This population is at a heightened risk to problems like air pollution, allergies, heat, and malnutrition. Premature birth and low birth weights can be a result of climate-driven stress on mothers.

Now how does that tie in to mental health?

  • Extreme weather can be a source of trauma. If a person experiences a severe weather event themselves or finds they are worrying about food and water, they will have heightened levels of stress which can lead to anxiety and depression. In the aftermath of a severe weather event, many people suffer from PTSD.
  • Worrying about climate change can be a source of stress. This may sound silly at first glance, but many people are not confident in their government’s handling of climate change, and especially in areas of high poverty and low resources, trying to prepare to care for one’s family in the event of a climate-changed induced weather event can be extremely stressful. As described in the study, “even uncertainty can be a source of stress and a risk factor for psychological distress”.
  • Community health can suffer. Climate change-related environmental changes can separate people from their community or lessen the opportunities people have for social interaction. This can lead to aggression which in turn can lead to increased violence, and crime – as we sometimes see in the aftermath of hurricanes.

Now that we know climate change can play such a vital role in not only our environment and our physical well-being, but also our psyche, it’s important to look ahead and see ways we can help mitigate these problems.

group of people watching sunset

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

How do we help?

There are a few key strategies to assist in mental health crises, related to climate change or not. One includes expanding mental health infrastructure, as noted in the study referenced. This does not necessarily mean upping the number of professionals available (although that, of course, is key), but also having a plan for communities in case the demand of people needing mental health services exceeds the supply of professionally trained therapists. Informal community leaders can be helpful in such instances. Having a community that is strong in social interactions already helps facilitate this as well.

Another way to help those who may be affected by climate-change related weather events is to develop a plan for vulnerable populations: These include low-income groups, immigrants, pregnant women, children, and the elderly. These people are most at risk for not only the physical impact of climate change, but the psychological as well; in addition, they may be the least likely to have access to mental health services, which is a double-edged sword. Making sure your community can meet their needs is key.

And finally, providing a fast post-disaster response is essential in alleviating the psychological damage climate change-related events can cause. As noted above, people within the community are available the fastest, and are able to assist more easily than larger government groups. DKI Canada is very valuable in this regard: With over 70 member locations across Canada, we have many people available to meet your post-disaster needs.

Working together in the event of a weather-related disaster is critical to helping your family, your community, and your city. Educating yourself on climate change is another important step of the process. If you find yourself in the midst of a weather-related disaster, please feel free to give us a call anytime on our emergency line at 1-855-DKI-2DAY.

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