The rise of ‘eco-anxiety’: climate change affects our mental health, too



People who have been affected by extreme weather events might experience mental health issues.
From shutterstock.com

Fiona Charlson, The University of Queensland

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) recently declared climate change a health emergency, reflecting similar positions taken by a growing list of peak medical bodies around the world.

The AMA’s statement highlights the significant impacts climate change is having on physical health, including an increase in climate-related deaths. The World Health Organisation regards climate change as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st Century”.

But the statement also draws the very important issue of mental health out of the shadows.




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Climate change can affect people’s mental health in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly.

We know experiencing extreme weather events is a risk factor for mental illness. And many thousands of people around the world are displaced from their homes as a result of climate events, putting them at perhaps even higher risk of mental illness.

More generally, people feeling distressed about the state of the planet may find themselves in a spiral of what’s been termed “eco-anxiety”.

Extreme weather events and psychological distress

Unprecedented weather events across Australia are already demonstrating clear and devastating impacts on the mental health of Australians, particularly in rural areas which are being hit the hardest by unseasonal drought, fires and floods.

These extreme weather events have resulted in the loss of homes, land and livelihoods. Research has found these experiences are taking a significant psychological toll on Australian farmers, who feel their sense of place and identities are under threat. Meanwhile, we’ve seen increasing rates of suicide among rural communities.

Elsewhere in the world, research similarly shows being affected by extreme weather events is a major risk factor for mental illness. This was evident, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States.




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Climate-related displacement

Long-term environmental changes, including once fertile land turning to desert, erosion of soil and coastlines, and sea level rise, are predicted to result in large-scale displacement, a major risk factor for mental illness.

Global statistics already estimate that in 2017 the majority of people forced from their homes around the world were displaced as a result of climate-related disasters.

Parents sometimes worry about how climate change will affect their children’s lives in the future.
From shutterstock.com

In Australia, low-lying islands such as those in the Torres Strait are at the forefront of this reality, with relocation plans already under consideration.

At the extremes, the reality of climate-induced social instability is already tangible across numerous countries, and the Asia-Pacific region is considered as high risk.

The existential dread of climate change

For many Australians, the existential dread of what the future holds in the face of unmitigated climate change is having documented impacts on their mental health. Australia’s youth have been exemplary at voicing their despair and “eco-anxiety” around the foreseeable deterioration of our planet.

For those too young to have a voice, parents are feeling anxiety and distress on their behalf. Mums and dads are under pressure to instil values such as caring for the environment, while worrying about the future of the planet they are leaving their children.




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Heatwaves linked to an increase in Australian suicide rates


And this emerging narrative of how climate change is impacting people’s mental health is not complete. The relationships between climate events and mental health are complex and not always apparent.

Extreme heat has been observed to be harmful to multiple aspects of mental health and well-being. Data from South Australia demonstrates hot days are associated with increased hospital admissions for mental and behavioural disorders.

Other research has found spikes in temperature were associated with increased suicide rates in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart.

A less obvious impact arises from the strong connection between nutritional status and mental health. Climate-related impacts on agriculture lead to reduced availability of nutritious foods, and poor nutritional intake can affect mental health.




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Health Check: seven nutrients important for mental health – and where to find them


So, what can be done?

The AMA’s recent statement has echoed calls from other medical associations for leadership on a national strategy for health and climate change. But what is it we can be doing to protect people from climate change-related mental health challenges?

Doing everything we can to reduce the progression of climate change is one clear way to address this issue.

But with the knowledge the climate crisis is only escalating, some practical responses will focus on preparing the health system for climate change. This should include increasing awareness of the mental health effects of climate change across the community, private, and government sectors.

It will also be important to invest in areas where mental health services are under-resourced, which are often the rural areas where the mental health effects of climate change are likely be most severe.




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A small but significant consolation is the public awareness being generated through the tireless work of advocacy groups and purposeful media reporting of farmers’ personal stories of distress.

Climate change adaptation strategies are in their infancy, but already we’re seeing some programs aimed at strengthening communities, particularly rural communities most severely affected by drought.

There will be no single solution to address the mental health impacts of climate change; a broad perspective and a range of actions will be necessary. As the climate crisis continues to unravel in Australia and globally, this will require strong leadership and some innovative thinking.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Fiona Charlson, the author of this piece, is available for a Q+A on Wednesday the 18th of September from 2pm-3pm AEST to take questions on this topic. Please post your questions in the comments below.The Conversation

Fiona Charlson, Conjoint NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Haphazard Posting


The last several months (and indeed the majority of the year – if not longer) has been marked by the haphazard and irregular nature of my posting to my Blogs and the updating of my websites. This is likely to continue for some time and for an indefinite period of time. Why? I have been battling depression (essentially), though I have no real understanding of why/how it has come about. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident that nearly killed me and I suffered a brain injury as a result of the accident. I am as fully recovered as I am likely to be and it has not really left a great permanent impact on my life – though this depression may prove to have been its lasting legacy.

I have thought of closing down the Bogs and websites on a number of occasions – but have not really wanted to do so. I would like to return to them with the same enthusiasm that I once had, though I am obviously unsure when that will be. Also, closing down the sites would be like yielding to the mental illness and sliding further down the slippery slope, which is not something I want to do. So it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other as regards what to do.

So if you have been a regular reader/user of my sites I ask for your continuing patience and understanding – normal service is something I am aiming at returning to. I just don’t know when that can/will be.