The dramatic impact of climate change on mental health

Roshan Rahnama recalls a call from a client several years ago, during which the early morning sky above his San Francisco home took on an uncomfortable hue.

“We started very early, so it was dark outside. But hours later, around 9 or 10 a.m., it was still dark outside,” she recalls. “When we looked out the window, the sky was orange and it was because of the forest fires.”

The words she now uses to describe the situation and the unease it created inside her: “so apocalyptic”.

As she spoke, Rahnama, senior vice president of business strategy and public health at McCann Global Health, was experiencing a series of equally terrifying weather events: the bomb cyclones, torrential downpours and floods that assaulted California in January. She now starts her day by asking a series of questions she never thought she would have to ask: Will she be able to walk outside? Is his house in danger of imminent disaster?

While the physical evidence of natural disasters, such as the recent torrential rains and flooding in California, is quite apparent, the mental toll can sometimes be just as worse — and linger for years. Source: Getty Images.

“In California it was earthquakes and now it’s become fires and floods,” she laments, referring to the weather-related anxiety with which she and many of her neighbors have struggled. learned to live. “It’s now part of our daily lives – and it’s terrible in terms of the effect on mental health.”

Climate anxiety, a phrase coined to sum up mental health issues resulting from climate change, is becoming increasingly visible in the United States and around the world. The only surprise, frankly, is that it took psychiatrists and other clinicians so long to come up with a name.

“When people face disaster, they can feel helpless,” notes Dr. Gagandeep Singh, psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Phoenix-based Mercy Care. “It can disrupt their social networks and increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or anxiety.”

As an example, Singh cited major wildfires that tore through Arizona in 2022, particularly near Flagstaff, which forced hundreds of people to evacuate: “It’s the suddenness that affects people “, he continues. “It leaves them feeling unprepared, isolated and overwhelmed.”

The obvious problem is that wildfires and other extreme weather events are happening more frequently – and often with more intensity. And it’s getting harder and harder to find refuge: More than 40% of Americans now live in a county recently affected by severe weather, in the form of fire, flood, hurricane, landslide or other natural disasters, according to a 2022 study Washington Post analysis.

Floods are almost daily in the United States, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. To no one’s surprise, the past eight years have been the hottest on record, according to new data from the European Union’s Copernicus climate change service.

“The difficulty with these natural disasters happening a lot more is that people are exposed to them again,” Singh says. “From a mental health perspective, this re-exposure can be harmful to people.”

While it may have been more difficult to establish a definitive link between climate change and mental health 10 years ago, more and more research has confirmed this link. In a paper published last year, Brenda Hoppe, a climate resilience researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Climate Adaptation Partnership, sought to track evidence that climate change was on people’s minds during their therapy sessions. .

His study asked mental health professionals in Minnesota if they regularly encountered mental health issues related to climate change, and 81% said they thought climate change was already a significant mental health issue, while 61% said they were beginning to see the impact in their patients. More than half said their clients were willing to discuss climate change as part of their treatment.

“Our desire was to present this story not only to help mental health professionals develop resources and training on how to deal with climate change, but also to tell the public, ‘Hey, here’s what professionals mental health see. That’s what they’re saying,” says Hoppe.

She divides the mental health impact of client change into three basic categories. The first is a direct, more acute impact, triggered by the trauma of sudden weather events or natural disasters: heat waves, floods, forest fires, etc. The second is a more indirect effect on the social determinants of health, such as how climate change is making it harder for farmers to sustain their livelihoods and contributing to an increase in suicides.

Family looking at burning globe
Source: Getty Images.

The third has only recently emerged, but has emerged more acutely among young people: a growing sense of existential unhappiness and hopelessness about the future that drives up rates of depression and anxiety. Such fear has become apparent even among people who do not live in areas prone to severe weather.

“It takes a growing awareness of climate change and what it means for our society, as well as an awareness of how we’ve dropped the ball to deal with it in the past,” says Hope. “We certainly see that showing up in young people.”

A number of phrases designed to capture this sense of existential despair, including eco-anxiety and solastalgia (officially defined by the journal Australasian Psychiatry as “the distress produced by environmental changes that affect people while they are directly connected to their home environment”), have emerged. The phenomenon has been seen all over the world, from indigenous communities in the United States to ranchers in Australia, Hoppe says.

A study published in 2021 by The Lancet attempted to quantify rising levels of climate-related anxiety. He revealed that 59% of young people surveyed were “extremely worried” and 84% were “moderately worried” about climate change. More than half of respondents said they had experienced sad, anxious, angry, guilty and helpless emotions over climate change and 45% said climate anxiety had a negative impact on their daily lives.

However, for health marketers, the conversation is still in its infancy.

“I haven’t heard much about climate change, let alone the impact of climate change on mental health,” Rahnama says. “There is a big gap, and therefore a huge opportunity for us to look into that more.”

flower brain
Source: Getty Images.

Fingerpaint Chief Strategy Officer Nick Megjugorac agrees. “I don’t think climate anxiety is as big as some of the other things we’ve heard about,” he says. “[Healthcare marketers] need to bring it into the world in a way that people can digest it and present a clear call to action.

This increased awareness must also find its way into personalized treatment plans.

“If we think about the solutions we design for diabetes, for example, how can we also integrate mental health from a climate change perspective? Rahnama said. “If a doctor comes up with a plan for someone who might be living in a weather-ravaged place and they don’t have the ability to get out and walk around every day, that’s not going to be the right plan. ”

There is a silver lining. Amid eco-anxiety and existential despair, mental health professionals have identified an emerging “climate resilience” in the people they treat.

In some communities, this means programs that proactively reach vulnerable people in the aftermath of severe weather. Mercy Care is tracking wildfires in its coverage areas and reaching out to its members, many of whom are low-income people in marginalized communities, to ensure their basic physical and mental health needs are met as a result. of a severe weather event.

“We figure out which of our members live in that geographic area and we try to contact them by phone or text to say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ Singh notes. “We have care managers checking in and asking, ‘Are you safe and do you have significant health care needs?'”

But climate resilience goes far beyond building basic health services and mental health infrastructure. It also means using the new hyper-awareness of climate change and channeling some of the existential fear into action.

“As we discuss all the negative impacts of climate change on mental health, we also bring forward this idea of ​​active hope and ask, ‘How can we counteract these impacts?'” Hoppe says. get people involved so they don’t turn away and sink into a sense of despair.”

Hoppe is encouraged by the growing number of people using climate awareness as a rallying cry to drive innovation and behavior change.

“For a long time, the messaging in the climate adaptation space was dark and gloomy,” she notes. “But now we realize that we have more capacity to celebrate and promote all of these solutions, and to rally people around them.”

Excerpt from the January 1, 2023 issue of MM+M – Medical Marketing and Media

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