Climate change is doing more than wreaking havoc on our lands and weather — it creates all kinds of problems for community mental health, according to a report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, a climate change think tank.
“This report signals the growing awareness of mental health professionals that climate change poses a clear threat to human well-being, one that is not as yet widely recognized or discussed,” Susan Clayton, lead author of the report and professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, tells Inverse.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, studies were gathered on the residents in affected areas, which showed that nearly half of the people in the area — 49 percent — had developed an anxiety or mood disorder, like depression. They also found that rates of suicide and suicide ideation (contemplating suicide) had more than doubled.
The numbers weren’t isolated to Hurricane Katrina, either; after Hurricane Sandy, 14.5 percent of people showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Clayton and her team found these numbers to be alarming and analyzed the statistics. The most apparent reasons for mental illness were loss of loved ones or property. But, prolonged worrying about things like drought or the distress of another destructive flood — even feelings of helplessness and fear — can instigate anxiety and mental illness. And when these thoughts or feelings go unchecked, it only gets worse.
“Stress manifests as a subjective feeling and a physiological response that occurs when a person feels that he or she does not have the capacity to respond and adapt to a given situation,” the report states. “Thus, climate-related stress is likely to lead to increases in stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.”
These responses can lead to violence and crime in affected areas, which can cause strain on relationships inside a community. These implications are even worse for underserved or minority communities where the economy was bad before a disaster.
At the rate that humans are pushing atmospheric limits, it may seem like these mental health spikes will only be getting worse. But, there are ways that people can fight back and rebuild their communities: The report suggests people face the challenging impacts of climate change head on and connect with others who may be facing the same obstacles, whether they be environmental or emotional.
“Connectedness to others is a core psychological need and an essential foundation for well-being,” the report explains. “During difficult times, people turn to those they are close to, such as family, friends, and neighbors, for emotional support.” And connecting with people, in turn, might help ease the negative effects of climate change to come.